Best of Film 2020

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Originally published on Ink 19 on December 7, 2020

Two words embody our list of the best films of 2020: process and reaction. In a year when the pandemic has put filmmaking and much of its connected ecosystem (i.e. festivals, theaters) on pause, it seems only appropriate that many of the selections for this year’s list involve either a reflective study on the process of filmmaking and/or a discourse on how the modern audience member reacts to scenes on screen, particularly when, like in moments of reality, we don’t know all of the contexts and motivations of the people we see. This year’s films remind us of the power and vitality of new cinema, and as we remain in our homes for the upcoming winter months watching content made some time ago, the films we’ve selected this year instill a hunger for a hopeful future day when cinema can be made again and can continue to expand on the definition of itself as an art form, on its attempts to replicate, modulate, and stray away from reality, and on its relationship to us as the audience.

A special thanks goes out to the good folks at Acropolis Cinema, AFI Fest, New York Film Festival, Independent Film Festival Boston, the Brattle Theater, and the Coolidge Corner Theater for their exceptional programming efforts that provided us with an immense amount of joy during a very tough year. We ask you to please support these festivals, microcinemas, and independent theaters as they all need your help now more than ever.

1) Liberté / France • Portugal / dir. Albert Serra

There is a danger in the excess charge of a transgressive film: its audacity may automatically render all other films less extraordinary. Albert Serra’s Liberté has all the makings of a highly transgressive work. Sadomasochism. Check. Orgies. Check. Violence. Check. Bodily functions. Check. But, Liberté doesn’t rise to the top of this year’s list for the memorability of such extreme elements. It is here in the number one spot because, by taking us back into the past, into the era of supreme hedonism of the libertines during the reign of Louis XVI, Serra forces us to look at the now and toward the tedium of our voyeuristic future. In Liberté, a group of exiled libertines led by the lecherous Duc de Wand (Baptiste Pinteaux) drop their velvet lined carriages in the forests outside of Berlin. At dusk, Duc de Wand describes his nauseating Sadean visions of pleasure, and once the sun has completely fallen, he and his court commence a night of sexual debauchery. However, no one in this massive orgy seems to be having a good time. Some have even become so bored that their bodies no longer can be aroused. And as the events of the evening become more ridiculous, the sumptuous aesthetic of Serra’s period piece gradually becomes increasingly garish, and by the end, we are left with a sickly, bleached, over exposed image of the forest surrounding the libertines, as if their pointless indulgences have taken the life out of the trees. On the surface, Liberté can certainly be examined as an exercise in filmmaking: in interviews, Serra has described his laborious and innovative methods, but looking underneath the sex, violence, and powdered wigs, the master director and artist is holding up a mirror to us. The libertine’s hedonism marked the end of an empire, a fall of a specific kind of aristocracy, and as we watch how they watch each others’ sexual activities in the open or through the windows of carriages, slowly and disturbingly, we see the current decline of the empires of today and the near future as we sit in our homes looking at images that can fulfill any and all of our desires on-demand. So, when the blasé countenances of the libertines on screen fade away, and the trees arrive, our own boredom begins to dissipate, leaving a bitterness in our mouths because shouldn’t we have been affected by what we have seen? What does our boredom truly say about who we are in this day and age? And for eliciting such a contentious question and unsettling feeling within us as viewers, Liberté is our favorite film of 2020. An extended review of Liberté can be read on Ink 19 here.

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2) Vitalina Varela / Portugal / dir. Pedro Costa

A singular faceless figure walking barefoot emerges from a plane that has landed on a desolate airstrip in Lisbon. The plane has traveled from Cape Verde to bring a woman to attend the funeral of her husband, Joaquim, who had left their homeland to work as a bricklayer decades earlier and who had promised, in vain, to purchase the woman a plane ticket so that one day they could be together. The woman walks from the airstrip, like a disembodied soul herself, through the darkened, maze-like streets and alleys of the impoverished Lisbon suburb of Cova da Moura to reach the hovel that was as much a false promise from her husband as it was a disappointing reality. The woman is the eponymous Vitalina Varela, and if this scenario sounds familiar, Vitalina once recounted these events in the early moments of Pedro Costa’s previous feature, Horse Money, and after six years, Costa, with Vitalina’s and the townspeople’s assistance, has reconstructed this heartbreaking moment from her life with a filmmaking process and visual style that has defined his particular approach to nonfiction storytelling. Throughout Vitalina Varela, Costa continuously reinforces the brilliance of his established methodology: his distinctive audiovisual compositions exemplify and revitalize the longstanding tradition of portraiture. A good portrait artist captures the essence of reality, adds a layer of fiction/bias on it through perception/perspective and preserves the combination across time. As a result of his years of entrenchment in the physical edifices and lives of the people of Cova da Moura with his small crew, Costa is able to assemble an intimate, deeply layered portrait of Vitalina Varela from the living pictures captured by cinematographer Leonardo Simões’ masterful eye and the keen sound development by João Gazua and Hugo Leitão. And, due to Costa’s intuitive, time intensive construction of docudrama, we, the viewers, feel a heightened level of empathy for Vitalina that few filmed portraits have ever been able to accomplish for their protagonists. Our full review of Vitalina Varela on Ink 19 can be read here.

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3) Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets / U.S.A. / dirs: Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross

It was over a decade ago when 45365, the feature documentary debut by the Ross brothers, landed on our top ten list for the year. That film, shot in the Rosses hometown of Sidney, Ohio, was the perfect condensed snapshot of nine months of day-to-day life in a small American town. Subsequently, through the decade that followed, the Rosses have unscrambled the underneath of various communities in the States through the personal experiences of a select group of the area’s inhabitants, such as the view of New Orleans as experienced by three brothers during one night’s escapades in the Ross brothers’ 2012 hybrid documentary, Tchoupitoulas. With Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, Bill and Turner have again utilized a docudrama style and set it over one endless evening like Tchoupitoulas, but for their affecting newest feature, the Rosses have assembled a large and, at times, caustic ensemble of barflies, who could’ve easily staggered out of casting call for Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz, to spend one night together in a single location—a Las Vegas dive bar called The Roaring 20s that is having its final last call. Again, like TchoupitoulasBloody Nose, Empty Pockets has the aesthetics and construction of a documentary, but with the addition of carefully added elements of film history playing out on the televisions in the bar and in the dialog of the archetypal cinematic characters represented by the gritty urban patrons, suggesting that the desire for contemporary filmmakers to lionize and repeat the idioms contained in American narrative filmmaking of our golden age of the 1970s has lost its place in today’s era of hybrid cinema. And so, like the bar in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the need for hard-edged urban stories to be depicted on screen to invoke some sense of nostalgia has also had its own last call.

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4) Ich war zuhause, aber ( I Was at Home, But…) / Germany / dir. Angela Schanelec

As Angela Schanelec’s feature opens, we observe the pastoral activities of a rabbit, donkey, and wild dog, which are then suddenly juxtaposed with a scene involving two school children awkwardly reciting Shakespeare’s Hamlet. These conflicting moments set the tone of I Was at Home, But…, which finds at its center, Astrid (Maren Eggert), a widowed mother of two, who is silently and then not silently grieving over the loss of her husband and communicating with everyone just one step or two away from the natural flow of human interaction. When we first see Astrid, she is distraught and grateful as she embraces her son Phillip (Jakob Lassalle), who has just returned to her, muddied and haggard, from an extended truancy in the woods. The exact reason for Phllip’s disappearance, as well as the cause of death of Astrid’s husband are intentionally left unexplained, but more importantly, the ramifications of these traumatic moments of loss manifest through Astrid as disconnected reactions to everything from what should be a banal purchase of a second-hand bicycle that turns out to be defective, to her exiling of her own children when they begin to not need her, to the emphatic vocal condemnation of the construction of a film that occurs on a Berlin street when Astrid by chance encounters the film’s director. As I Was at Home, But… continues on its structure that feels as loose as it is intentionally shaped, you willfully abandon the search for narrative allegory between Astrid, Phillip and possibly Hamlet, in favor of immersion into a fascinating collection of moments that Schanelec has instinctively woven into each other to paint a compelling portrait of a disjointed life upended by a recent spay of constant disappointments both large and small.

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5) Les enfants d’Isadora (Isadora’s Children) / France • South Korea / dir. Damien Manivel

After a tragic car accident that led to the loss of her two young children, the mother of modern dance, Isadora Duncan, choreographed her original work, Mother, an elegy to her children and to her motherhood cut short. In Isadora’s Children, Damien Manivel presents four women interacting with Mother. First, we see a dancer (Agathe Bonitzer) intently studying the history of the piece and attempting to translate its abstract Labanotation symbols into movement. Then, we observe the rehearsals between a choreographer (Marika Rizzi) and a young dancer (Manon Carpentier) with Down syndrome preparing for her upcoming solo performance of the piece. At the end, we watch the reaction of an audience member (famed dancer Elsa Wolliaston) who attends the aforementioned performance. In each of these sections, Manivel captures each woman’s interpretations of Duncan’s original gestures alongside their natural body cadences, and in doing so, he allows us to see each woman’s relationship to dance, motherhood, and womanhood. The first dancer is precise and diligent in her pursuit to execute Mother, but as a young woman without any children (and what looks like no plans to have any in the near future), she seemingly mistrusts her instincts and repeatedly refers back to the Labanotation document as a crutch in her rehearsal studio. The choreographer and the second dancer rehearse from videos and notes, and in hearing the choreographer’s stories about missing her own children who have moved abroad, we can see the sorrow in her motions and their consequent interpretations by the dancer. And lastly, the audience member moved by the performance travels home, lights a candle by a picture of a man who is likely her son, and mournfully performs a solo from the piece. Without much dialog in Isadora’s Children, the camera carefully studies the bodies of these women as they move to and from their lives and Mother, and as we watch their daily gestures and dances, we are mesmerized by what the reach of an arm, the step of a foot, says about each. With Isadora’s Children, Manivel celebrates the female form—the beauty in the diversity of shape and stature, of grace in movements across space and time, and of conscious and subconscious gestures revealing relationships to one of the most distinctive parts of the female experience, motherhood.

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6) Martin Eden / Italy / dir. Pietro Marcello

In his adept transposition of the novel of the same name by Jack London, director Pietro Marcello, along with his Lost and Beautiful co-writer, Maurizio Braucci, seamlessly shifted the setting of Martin Eden from early 20th century Oakland to Naples, which given the history of Italy during that era, serves London’s vision of Martin well, as he is a man who champions individualism over the tenets of socialism. As Martin Eden begins, we meet Martin (Luca Marinelli), a working class, simpatico, but uneducated Neapolitan sailor engaging in a moment of random carnality with a local woman he meets at a bar. In the days that follow, Martin is on a boat of his employ, and during a moment of pause, he rises to pugilistically intervene when he witnesses a hulking dockworker about to pulverize a nebbish man named Arturo (Giustiniano Alpi), who happens to be the son of a wealthy nobleman. As a sign of gratitude, Arturo takes Martin back to his stately familial home for a meal and introduces his rescuer to his refined sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy), whom our protagonist immediately fancies. After they dine together, Elena shows Martin some of the books in her family’s study, and Martin, who senses the glaring social divide between himself and her, immediately begins to devour novels with the goal of closing the gap. Soon, Martin’s growing intellect surfaces, and he begins to write verse to impress Elena, which leaves him in a quandary of no longer being able to relate to his peers while never fully being allowed to integrate with the classes above him due to his proletariat origins. As the film progresses, Martin becomes trapped between art and life as he navigates the struggles to acquire what is needed to sustain himself, the hypocrisy of the elite, and the crushing of the individual coming from the political ethos sweeping his country. After a decade plus of directing documentaries, Pietro Marcello, with Martin Eden, has ingeniously integrated newsreel, classic cinema, and a career-defining performance from Luca Marinelli into an ambitious second narrative feature that feels like a historical epic in form, yet paradoxically refuses to hold onto period identifiers that would keep the film’s central character’s struggles at a safe distance. This unique structure allows us to see that Martin’s class conflicts and issues with social ascension are no different from today than they were nearly a century before.

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7) Rizi (Days) / Taiwan / dir. Tsai Ming-liang

As their partnership has now spanned over thirty years, it is impossible to mention the name, Tsai Ming-liang without bringing up his onscreen counterpart and alter-ego Lee Kang-sheng. Since their 1989 film, All The Corners of the World, the pair have collaborated on a multitude of features, but since 2013’s Stray Dogs, their output together has mostly consisted of shorts, documentaries, and even a foray into virtual reality for 2017’s The Deserted: VR. Sadly, in recent years, Lee has developed a chronic neck pain that is ironically reminiscent of his character’s affliction in his earlier film, The River, and so, as the real life Lee seeks treatment for the condition, Tsai incorporates the documentation of Lee’s healing process into his newest feature, Days, a meditative and purposefully unsubtitled film where conversation is replaced by physical and emotional contact. As the film begins, we see Kang (Kang-sheng Lee) in his rural home mired by relentless physical pain which forces him to travel to Bangkok where he can find a holistic healer who might be able to offer him some relief. We then separately meet Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), a man much younger than Kang, who methodically cooks for only himself in his small and lonely Bangkok apartment. When Kang and Non clandestinely meet for a sexual encounter in a hotel room, their coupling transpires with a fluidity and deliberately meditative pace that we have come to expect from Tsai’s filmography, so as the nearly thirty minute scene transpires, you not only feel the intrinsic connection between Kang and Non, but also that same level of caring between Lee and Tsai. After their encounter, Kang gifts Non a music box that plays the score composed for Charlie Chaplin’s later, and deeply personal film, Limelight. As the song plays, we as the audience are treated to one more eloquent cinematic connection between Lee and Tsai that even goes another level beyond their own storied artistic partnership together.

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8) Isabella / Argentina / dir. Matías Piñeiro

While Matías Piñeiro’s previous feature Hermia and Helena centered itself on the experiences of a writer working on a translation of William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s DreamIsabella focuses on the person tasked with bringing a Shakespearean female character to life—the actress. Named after the protagonist of Shakespeare’s Measure for MeasureIsabella has a syncopated rhythm and oloid-like shape as it follows the paths and connected center of actresses Mariel (María Villar) and Luciana (Agustina Muñoz) as they audition for the role of Isabella at different points in their career. Former classmates, the two women’s professional and personal lives crash together when Mariel desperately needs a loan from her brother, and when she receives a tip that Luciana is his lover, she travels out of Buenos Aires to try to find him at his rendezvous point with her. However, when Mariel arrives, she sees only Luciana, and the two spend the rest of the day together walking and talking about their work: Luciana’s work on a film in Portugal and the consequent need to turn down the role of Isabella in a staging of Measure for Measure, and Mariel’s inability to find work as of late. Over the course of the walk, Luciana encourages Mariel to audition for the role of Isabella now that it is vacant, and offers to help her prepare for the role. As they rehearse the lines, repeating them over and over and using stones to represent different emotional motivations and inflections, sometimes with success and sometimes not on the part of Mariel, they set into motion the rhythm of the rest of Isabella. We see Mariel and Luciana at various points of their lives after this initial intersection out of sequence, interspersed with concentric rectangles shifting between shades of blue, red, and purple. And through such a deconstructed approach, the sequence of the images and the shifts in time mimic how Mariel and Luciana may recall the moments that motivate their final decisions on whether or not to continue their art. We see scenes from their slight competition with each other, their personal lives, and most importantly, their struggles as actresses who regularly depend on the judgment of men (be it directors or writers) in order to receive the opportunity to express themselves. Isabella honors the role of the actress in narratives and instills a deep respect for the vulnerability she must show and the effort she must exert, and with its irregular pace, sheds a bright light on the array of personal and artistic trials and errors that make it exceptionally difficult for an actress to determine whether being herself also means being other people for most of her life.

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9) Collectiv (Collective) / Romania / dir. Alexander Nanau

On October 30, 2015, a fire occurred in the Colectiv music club in Bucharest that directly resulted in the deaths of 27 people and left over 100 injured. An investigation that followed proved that the club had received an operating license without a proper inspection from the Fire Department, which caused a public uproar, but when a subsequent story written by Gazeta Sporturilor journalist Catalin Tolontan and his team verified that 38 of the victims, many of whom had non-life threatening burns, had died in the weeks following the tragedy from hospital infections caused by a criminally negligent dilution of the disinfectants supplied to the burn wards, it led to demonstrations that forced a toppling of the Romanian government. Now, with a population out for revenge, Vlad Voiculescu, a well-meaning patient rights advocate, is selected to fulfill the role of Health Minister to control the damage, and it is here in the narrative where director Nanau provides you with seldom-seen, simultaneous access into both the inner-workings of the Minister’s office and the diligent team at Gazeta Sporturilor as they continue to uncover a wide-ranging network of corruption that existed at every level of a government that strived to defraud the very healthcare system it was charged to administer for its officials’ own personal gain. Throughout Collective, director Alexander Nanau carefully balances this rare glimpse into both sides of a system going down in ruins, while masterfully keeping the human suffering of the victims, and their families, omnipresent in the viewers’ minds.

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10) Ōkoku (aruiwa sono-ka ni tsuite) (Domains) / Japan / dir. Natsuka Kusano

As Domains opens, a young woman named Aki (Asami Shibuya) listens calmly while a police officer informs her that she is being detained on the suspicion of murdering Honoka, the three year old daughter of her childhood friend Nodoka Kakiuchi (Tomo Kasajima) and Nodoka’s overbearing husband, Naoto (Tomomitsu Adachi). Aki starkly and unemotionally confesses to the crime, and suddenly we are then at a table reading involving the three actors who portray Aki, Naoto, and Nodoka as they run the lines that describe the backstory of their relationship to one another. As the actors go over their scripts and the disembodied voice of the director is heard demanding changes of camera positioning, lighting, and the inflections of the performers, we as the viewer weigh the impact that every nuance adds to or subtracts from the narrative. Simultaneously, as the scenes are repeated, we also gain a sense that the words as they are changed are not only reflective of the director’s desires, but also of the actors’ personal feelings finding their way into the motivations of their characters, which bring into question the very nature of the why and how behind what we experience and interpret in fiction cinema. What director Kusano and her cast achieve with Domains is a kind of dual storytelling process that has, at its core, all of the elements necessary for a standard police procedural, but through the added deconstruction of the filmmaking process, we are more compelled to follow through with the evolution of the plot as determined by the actors’ responses to direction, and more urgently, the emotional effect that the total process subsequently has on the cast.

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SUPPLEMENTAL LIST

Tommaso / Italy • U.S.A. / dir. Abel Ferrara

One of our only regrets this year, as we sit down to write this capsule review, is that we have not yet had the opportunity to see Ferrara’s newest feature, Siberia, a film several years in the making, whose costly production supplied a great deal of the underlying tension for the titular Willem Dafoe/Abel Ferrara hybrid character in Tommaso. Regardless of this missed screening, we still found Tommaso on its own to be one of the most impactful character studies that we saw this year. Over the last two decades, real life neighbors Dafoe and Ferrara have collaborated on a large multitude of projects, both narrative and documentary, so it was seemingly inevitable that their best effort together to date has combined both forms. Here, Dafoe is an American director conceptualizing the aforementioned Siberia whilst living a seemingly content existence with his much younger wife Nikki and their toddler daughter Anna in Rome. During most days, Tommaso plays the role of dad, takes Italian language classes, and leads acting workshops for young thespians when he isn’t working on his new feature, but when night falls, Tommaso cathartically confronts his years of addiction by sharing his stories at a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. By all accounts, Tommaso seems to have his life under control, but as the film progresses, and he conceptualizes the rugged story of Siberia for Nikki, and in turn the audience, you begin to sense that our director is starting to feel his age and doubts his ability to remain vital to both his generations-younger partner and his craft. By implementing a production ethos that forced Dafoe to improvise his way out of tense situations while constructing a narrative that references both men’s cinematic careers, Ferrara has masterfully blurred the line between actor and director in a way that forces us to question the current state of the medium.

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Notturno / Italy • France • Germany / dir. Gianfranco Rosi

The winner of the Arca Cinema Giovani Award at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno is his first feature since his Oscar nominated 2016 film, Fuocoammare (Fire At Sea), which dealt with the tragedy of the European Migrant crisis as seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old refugee named Samuele. As the aftermath of war has been the focus of his work, Rosi, with his fifth feature, Notturno, filmed, for over three years, the regions where the actions of ISIS have been the most devastating between Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon, pausing his camera on the people of these places where horrific acts of violence have occurred. For everyone you meet in Notturno, war has been their reality for a very long time, and so Rosi includes into his narrative observational footage of more of the mundane actions of people who are trying to regain some sense of normalcy, such as hunters looking for game at dusk, to present a harsh contrast to scenes of people who cannot get through the day without dealing with the grim reminders of conflict. From the child who discusses the brutal images of war that are realized in his classmates’ crayon sketches at school, to the mother who listens on her phone aloud to voicemail messages from her daughter who had been abducted by ISIS, Notturno goes beyond those war documentaries that flood you with scenes of carnage until you are rendered numb. By employing an impressive array of sumptuously framed landscapes, coupled with a sound design of overwhelming silences against the witnessing of crushed souls and cries of sadness, you are forever reminded that war is not a contained moment of time that can be simply examined like the pages of a history book.

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Ghost Tropic / Belgium • Netherlands / dir. Bas Devos

After a five-year absence from feature filmmaking, director Bas Devos released two features in 2019 (screened here in 2020), both dealing with the aftermath of the 2016 Islamist attacks in Brussels: Hellhole and Ghost Tropic. Each film adopts a drastically different tone in depicting how the Belgian city has attempted to progress past the extremist violence that had taken place there a few years before. The more placid and ethereal of the two Devos films, Ghost Tropic has as its protagonist Khadija (Saadia Bentaïeb), a middle-aged Muslim woman who works as a second shift maintenance worker. At her job, Khadija gets along well with her coworkers, but when she ends her shift, she falls asleep on her bus ride home from work and misses her stop, leaving her on the opposite edge of town with no return bus to ride back or money for a taxi. Having no other options, Khadija must walk through the cold late night streets of Brussels where she then encounters a plethora of different nocturnal residents who range from a night watchman, to a store clerk, to a deathly ill homeless man whom she tries to rescue, to an immigrant squatter who lives in the house where she once worked as a maid. As Khadija peacefully travels through the various Brussels neighborhoods, you are imbued with a dreadful feeling that some kind of violence will be inflicted on her based on the 2016 attacks, but these moments never arrive, and yet, the lack of expected transgressions against Khadija never feels overly optimistic, for Devos cleverly suggests throughout Ghost Tropic that Khadija’s journey may not even be a real one. Could her walk be part of her bus ride dream state where she is as much a part of her city’s landscape as the icy billboards advertising an almost impossible tropical escape? Or could she possibly be the victim of the 2016 violence that has left her as a saintly presence who oversees the city she called home? By leaving the reality of Ghost Tropic ambiguous, Devos creates a fiction with limitless possibilities that invariably forces us to challenge our assumptions of what we believe is the potential outcome for a character based on our limited knowledge of the history of a place.

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Piedra Sola (Lonely Rock) / dir. Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf

Inspired by a poem from legendary Argentine folk singer and writer Atahualpa Yupanqui, director Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf has crafted his successful debut feature, Piedra Sola, which smartly blends ethnographic film elements with a fictional plot that balances the physical and metaphysical through the observance of nature, cultural rites, and the day-to-day necessities of human survival. Over the course of one year, director Tarraf, cinematographer Alberto Balazs, and a small crew lived with llama farmer Ricardo Fidel and his family in their home high in the Andes in the remote village of El Condor in Sierra de Jujuy, Argentina, and it is there where he filmed the story of Ricardo and his community’s efforts to preserve the harmony between their people and Pachamama (mother nature). Piedra Sola begins with Ricardo’s family and the ritual slaughter of one of their llamas as a blood offering to Pachamama, but despite their oblation, some of Ricardo’s other llamas are found dead, which prompts Ricardo to hunt for the mythical puma that he believes is singling out his herd alone. As Ricardo travels away from El Condor on his quest to find the puma, he goes on both a physical and spiritual journey that ascends the mountainous landscape and varying planes of existence contained in his village’s cosmology. What is remarkable in Piedra Sola is that with most ethnographic cinema, there is always the fear of exoticising the people witnessed, and in turn, an exploitation of a culture’s identity, but that feeling of exoticising never exists in Piedra Sola, as Tarraf and the masterful lens of Balazs blend pure observation and the constructed narrative elements into a form of storytelling that is always reverent in its discovery. This is an exceptional achievement for Tarraf, especially considering Piedra Sola’s lean 82-minute running time. You can read Generoso’s interview with director Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf that took place during AFI Fest 2020 here.

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Selfie / Italy / dir. Agostino Ferrente

Originally motivated to document the story of Davide Bifolco, a teenage boy errantly killed by the police in the troubled district of Traiano in Naples, director Agostino Ferrente, upon witnessing the media bias against Davide, shifted the scope of his project by boldly handing filming responsibilities to Pietro and Alessandro, two boys from Traiano who are best friends and who were exactly Davide’s age when he died. Ferrente then directed Pietro and Alessandro to chronicle their everyday experiences together on their smartphones, and these extremely candid views into their lives were then edited together with footage taken by the security cameras affixed to the storefronts in the neighborhood that they once shared with Davide. As Selfie progresses, and we watch firsthand the genuine emotional bond between these two young men who are coping with their loss of their friend while simply trying to live in a zone notorious for criminal activity, we are ever reminded of the dehumanizing effect that the interspersed CCTV footage has on our perceptions of the people who live in economically challenged areas like Pietro and Alessandro. By giving the storytelling agency back to these two teens in Traiano, Ferrente has underscored the gravity of the loss of Davide Bifolco in a way that no traditional documentary could ever do. Though we will never meet Davide, Selfie at least gives us some sense of who he was by allowing us to view the lives of two of his peers who continue to endure in the place where Davide’s life was unfairly cut short.

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BEST REPERTORY FILM EXPERIENCE (TIED)

Série noire / France / dir. Alain Comeau

Many thanks go to the folks at Film Movement for their excellent 2K restoration earlier this year of Série noire, director Alain Comeau’s raw and daring 1979 adaptation of Jim Thompson’s heartbreakingly tragic crime novel, A Hell of a Woman. For Generoso, it had been several decades since he had first seen the film, but yet it has long remained in his mind, along with James Foley’s After Dark My Sweet and Bernard Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, as one of the strongest of Thompson’s works transposed to screen, and this updated reissue reconfirms his feelings. Though French film legend Bernard Blier and then newcomer Marie Trintignant are excellent in their respective roles in Série noire, much of the credit to the success of this film has to go to the late Patrick Dewaere, who went all in as the lead, the lovelorn, down and out, door-to-door salesman, Frank, a reluctant criminal who has to turn to murder to escape his and his paramour’s dire predicament. Reportedly, director Comeau had such faith that Dewaere was the only actor who could embody the character of Frank that he threatened to walk away from the project if Dewaere couldn’t take the role. Having been a huge fan of Dewaere, Generoso has always felt that he was that perfect fit for Thompson’s hapless antihero, Frank “Dolly” Dillon (changed in the film to Frank Poupart), as the late actor possessed that rare ability to emote a fragility combined with a desperate intensity that was so vital for the part, which he overwhelmingly delivered in one of his last great performances before his death in 1983. As you watch Série noire and observe Frank sinking deeper and deeper into trouble due to his love for Mona and his desire to break out of his miseries, you are waylaid by Dewaere’s commitment to the role as he imbues Frank with such a profound level of self-loathing and self-abuse that you almost forgive him for his many evils.

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Out of the Blue / Canada / dir. Dennis Hopper

After the overwhelming success of Hopper’s 1969 directorial debut, Easy Rider, Universal Studios greenlit the actor/director’s next production, The Last Movie, and gave him a budget of one million dollars and total creative control of the project. With money in hand and a major studio’s backing, Hopper flew to Peru and spent most of 1970 making his sophomore film, which garnered the Critics Prize at the 1971 Venice Film Festival, while notoriously falling at the box office. Disheartened by the failure of The Last Movie, Hopper concentrated solely on acting over the next decade, and turned in a plethora of excellent performances, most notably in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend and in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. After Apocalypse Now, Hopper was signed to star in a small Canadian feature titled CeBe, but when producers fired the film’s director, Hopper immediately stepped in to direct and quickly authored a script geared towards the talents of his young co-star, Linda Manz, and her admiration of punk rock. The film would be renamed Out of the Blue, and Manz would turn in a once in a lifetime performance as a troubled young woman who turns to punk rock and her love of Elvis Presley to cope with the crushing realities of having a heroin-addicted mother (Sharon Farrell), and a father (Hopper) who is serving a prison sentence for killing a school bus full of children while driving drunk behind the wheel of his truck. As Cebe, Manz’s emotionally erratic portrayal feels natural and embodies the punk mindset in a way where so many mainstream Hollywood films of that era failed, like Times Square. Generoso has long been a devotee of Out of the Blue, and he loudly extolled its virtues when he heard the sad news that Linda Manz had passed away in August of this year. The new 4K restoration that screened at AFI Fest 2020 finally allows audiences to experience the full effect Out of the Blue, with its loud thuds and its bleak imagery that harshly examine the rapid decline of the American family.

Generoso and Lily Fierro

Director Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf

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Originally published on Ink 19 on November 17, 2020

Initially inspired to locate the mythical rock that is the subject of the 1941 poem, “Piedra sola,” by legendary Argentinian folk singer and writer Atahualpa Yupanqui, first time feature director Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf journeyed to the Northern region of his native Argentina where by chance he met llama herder Ricardo Fidel Tolaba. After many conversations with Tolaba, Tarraf took a small crew to the remote village of El Condor, located between the bordering mountains of Northern Argentina and Bolivia, where he and his team lived with and filmed Tolaba and his family over the next year. As the crew immersed themselves in Tolaba’s community, they documented the native rites there and subsequently combined the footage that they shot with a fiction written by Tarraf and Lucas Distéfano that was inspired by the Andean Cosmovision to make Piedra Sola. This compelling 71-minute feature follows Ricardo after he and his family ritually sacrifice a llama and journey to a nearby village to sell the animal’s meat and pelt as a means of survival. Soon, when several more of Ricardo’s llamas are found dead, Ricardo goes on a physical and spiritual journey away from El Condor to locate the unseen puma that he believes is killing his herd. I thankfully caught up with Tarraf when his transcendent first feature screened as part of the New Auteurs section at this year’s American Film Institute’s Festival.

Q: Looking at your film and your blending of documentary and fiction cinema, my mind immediately went to Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela and the process that Costa utilized as he lived in the community of his actress for some time. I understand that you did this as well—you lived with Ricardo Fidel Tolaba and his family in making Piedra Sola. Costa knew Vitalina’s story before filming the recreation because she appeared in his prior feature, Horse Money, and so I wondered: how did you meet Ricardo, and how familiar were you with the rituals of the people of El Condor before you moved in with his family? Also, at what point in the process did you and Lucas Distéfano start to create the fictional elements of your script?

A: Well, I am from Buenos Aires, which is very far from the Puna region, about 2000 kilometers away actually. So, my first encounter with the region was via a poem from Atahualpa Yupanqui. Yupanqui is a very important poet and musician in that region, but I should also say that he is better known as a musician than as a writer. The first poem which I read of his was called, “Il Tempo Di Hombre (Man’s Time),” where he speaks of a universal man. Then, I read his first book of poems, Piedra sola: poemas del cerro, where he speaks about a rock that falls from a mountain and lands in the valley, and that rock becomes a refuge for the shepherds where they can contemplate. Originally, my romantic idea was to go and find the rock Yupanqui wrote about, and so, my wife and I went on a journey to find this place and in turn find out more about Atahualpa Yupanqui to make a documentary on him. That was the initial idea, but then on this journey, I met Ricardo and really was touched by him, and so, I put aside the documentary on Yupanqui, and thought to write my own script. But in the back of my mind, I was still thinking of Yupanqui and considered the way that he approached art, in that it is universal and without borders. I was with my wife when we met Ricardo, and after a half of an hour of conversation with him, I began to cry because I knew that I had found someone who had so much wisdom.

We became friends, and I stayed with him for a month that first time. Afterwards, I went back to Buenos Aires, and then back again to Ricardo. At first, the community was very closed off, as it is on the border between Bolivia and Argentina, and thus they needed time to open up and adjust to me being there. Also, I always said to myself that if I were to film there, then I needed to do it from the inside and not from the outside, and so to do that, I needed time. In that way, I feel my process was like that of Pedro Costa, as he insists on spending a good deal of time with the people in his films. I agree that you need to spend the time with these people to create a home environment and a family. So, I did a few more journeys with Lucas Distéfano and our cinematographer, Alberto Balazs, and I wrote a script which I presented to the Institute of Argentine Cinema to solicit funding for my first feature. But then, I went back to Ricardo in El Condor and wrote another script, which constantly evolved. When we began shooting, the film was a pure documentary at first that was done with Alberto (Balazs) and a very small crew of about four, which eventually expanded to about ten people as shooting continued. However, I would say that fifty percent of the filming was still done with just four people in the crew. In the beginning, we had all this documentary footage that I gathered together and watched, but it left me with a dilemma, as I then had the desire to add some fiction to what I had in order to organize what I felt was a bit of chaos with the documentary (laughs). I then used all of the stories Ricardo told me to create a very precise script.

Q: At that juncture, did you feel that the script aligned well with what you had filmed?

A: Yes, but I subsequently did take another journey back to El Condor with a sound designer to record only sound for two weeks. And with all of that material, I was able to make the film. But regarding the region, it is an amazing place, Generoso. It feels so remote and untouched in a way, and thus you feel like you are looking at a place that could very well be the origins of the planet. And it is for that reason at the start of the film that we show the storm to put the viewer in a mindset that they are indeed viewing the creation of the world and the place of first humans. It is a very mythological place, the Puna region, because if you have ever been to Buenos Aires, it is the exact opposite—it is a very cosmopolitan and modern place.

Q: When you speak of the first moments of your film, seeing and hearing the storm and this feeling of being put at the beginning of time, I also think of the image of the hobbled horse that you present. While watching Piedra Sola, I believed that Pachamama was simply a representation of mother nature, but now, as I understand from your director’s statement, it can also mean time and universe, as in the poem by Yupanqui. What then did you wish to suggest by showing the horse at that moment? Should we see it as a reflection on Argentina’s past by way of Spanish rule? If not, what does the horse suggest in terms of the time and history of the region?

A: The horse is very important in many ways. First, the ritual that you see involving the horse in the film is a real ritual in that region. When they go to the bonfire, the horse becomes a vehicle as a means of transportation to the other world. But for me, in the north, there is a synchronicity between the Americans and the Spanish because, as you know, the horse is a Spanish animal. When you see this lighting of a fire with this horse, it was also in a way a symbol of fusion between these two cultures. This was important to me as I feel that we need to integrate more in this way and not be separate because, when it is all said and done, we are all in the human race. What is funny is that the horse that you see is white, and it is called, “The Gringo,” which you know means, “the foreigner,” and so the idea was to show the horse in the beginning, so, at the end, you could see a transformation in a non-linear way as to give respect to the idea of time and the universe. As you see that in the end of the film, you are ascending, and you are not very clear as to the destination, like a Fata Morgana, and as you ascend, time becomes a bit more unclear, which was my goal as to keep the narrative non-linear. But the horse is indeed about this colonialism and our need to transcend this.

Q: In Apichitapong Weerasethukhul’s 2010 film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, as the titular character is dying, his past, present, and future all collapse into one plane of existence. As Ricardo lives in El Condor, which, in the Andean Cosmovision, is where the past is thought to be ahead and the future behind, what then does the ascent of Ricardo at the end of the film suggest to you about the boundaries between the physical and the spiritual?

A: You know many people believe that Ricardo has died at the end of my film, but I don’t see the ending that way. For me, the end of my film is a condensing of the past, the present, and the future. I feel that we are always thinking in a linear way, but the idea of the film is to bring in these planes of the present, past, and future, and we are eternity itself. And when Ricardo shows a shadow, it is because when we are eternal this shadow will integrate with ourselves, and we will become complete.

There is a phrase that we say in Spanish, and I don’t know if you also say it in English, but we say, “In a grain of sand, we can see the totality of the desert.” So for me, it was exactly the same thing, but with the stone.

Q: In Buddhist doctrine, when a food or drink sacrifice is offered to a spirit, it shouldn’t be eaten by people and must eventually be thrown away. As you have stated in a previous interview, there are three planes of existence for the people in the Puna Region: the level of the condor, which is the elevated level, the level of the puma, which is the current plane, and the level of the serpent, which is underneath. In Piedra Sola, when Ricardo goes into the village to sell the llama meat that he used for the ritual, people refuse to buy it, and a woman whom he offers it to even says, “Oh, it is from El Condor. I have heard that the meat from there is tough.” Is the custom in El Condor to sell the meat and pelt of the ritual animal, or in a sense, given the “meat is tough” statement, is the puma singling out Ricardo’s herd as some sort of punishment for treating the llama as a commodity?

A: I can say this: in the North of Argentina, life is very simple. So, the puma and the llama are part of the level of man, and thus, their relationship to each other is very sacred, but eating the llama is also the only way that the people can survive. In the ritual that you see in my film, the blood that is painted onto the house is the offering, and then the family will survive off of the meat because you must remember that this is a mountainous and very unfertile region to grow agriculture. Therefore, their relationship is very sacred, and that is why when Ricardo sacrifices the llama, he closes his eyes as to connect with the animal, so Ricardo really does understand what the sacrifice means in that this animal represents so much to him and his family. For that reason, the llama gives so much to these people and to the survival of their community, and because of this importance, the llama is sacred in human territory. But, at the same time, the people cannot do the same thing with a condor because that is on another level, the world of the gods, and so that is not a good thing, but the llama is part of this world.

Q: So then, when Ricardo’s son sells the llama pelt for cash, I wondered what needed to be purchased with money in what is seemingly a bartering community like El Condor? Money of course, isn’t necessarily modern, so I do not believe that it in conflict with Pachamama specifically in terms of time, but does it suggest a level of unnaturalness in El Condor, as money becomes an intermediary outside tool in a community where most of life’s necessities can be traded for?

A: Yes, I can understand this thought about the money that they make by selling the meat and the pelt, but with it they purchase vegetables to eat, and they buy the coca leaves that they use in rituals because you cannot find the coca leaves where they live, so they have to travel to Bolivia to get buy them. I’m sure that you understand this, but the coca leaves are key to the whole cosmology there, and for that reason, we closely filmed the veins in the leaves so you see the totality of it all.

Q: Are the coca leaves crucial for just that community, or did you find that they were essential to the entire Andean cosmology?

A: Yes, in Northern Argentina, but also in Bolivia, the north of Chile, and Peru, they are sacred. You know that we are so removed from the sacredness of the coca leaf because we only think of it in its refined state for drugs, but for them it is so sacred in the way that they can “see” with it. In the end of the film, when Ricardo sees the fire, you should know that in the actual community when they see and read the smoke from a fire, they can tell who is going to die. So, the fire was always prescient for me when I was filming. When people in the community gathered around a fire, I felt that it was part of the totality as well.

Q: There is a danger in ethnographic filmmaking, and that is of a sort-of exoticizing of the culture, which I feel your film never does because of the connection to the pain that exists in the life of Ricardo and the people in El Condor, but at the same time, there is a physical and spiritual ascension that goes beyond the human form. How concerned were you that the people whom you were filming would become too subject-like? To specify, as an outsider, were you ever concerned about the perception that we as the viewers might have that you are studying the people of El Condor as clinical subjects?

A: Here, I should say again that it was always crucial for me to film from the “inside” and to do that, apart from spending time with the people, I had to be like them, and they had to be like me, so we could have a kind of fusion. Like, if you film a storm, Generoso, you need to feel a storm—you have to be under that storm in order to show that you are there. Otherwise, it would feel like you were watching it from outside. Also, because I lived there, I had so much respect for the Cosmovision that I was trying to bring my camera to the level of the circumstance. It is a matter of being present, and because we are in the present, we can then have the ability to play with time. Lastly, I should say that I always felt that I had to have one foot on the earth and one foot in the sky at all times there because in order to reach the sacred I need to be on the earth too.

Q: In terms of the practical aspects of filming when you were in such a remote location, I am so curious as to your exact access to electricity when you were in El Condor.

A: Electricity wasn’t everywhere in El Condor when I was shooting, and there wasn’t access to the internet at all. This is quite funny, but in the scene when Ricardo and his son are coming back to El Condor on the bus, if you look at the newspaper, it mentions the internet, which was on its way there at the time. So now in 2020, there is the internet, and I can communicate with the people there, but for the year that I was there, it didn’t exist. So yes, there was some electricity there like in the school and in the small clinic that they operated for the community, but for our electricity needs like charging the camera’s batteries and the lights, we had to bring some gas generators with us.

Q: Given the way of life in El Condor, do you feel that your lack of access to modern conveniences, aided you and your crew in feeling more inside of their world?

A: Yes, it did, but to explain further, in El Condor, when we were filming there, the method that was used when someone needed to communicate with others involved going some distance to a place with a radio transmitter and communicating that way. They would also get the news like that, so it was a difficult situation. Now though, I do wonder how El Condor will develop as they have the internet there along with some other conveniences. In that way, I feel that Ricardo is between generations, and for that reason, I wanted to put those three faces in that house: this old person, Ricardo, and his son.

Q: At this point, do you have a desire to go back to El Condor to film how the modern world has changed the people and place?

A: No, for me it definitely is a curiosity as far as keeping track of these people, but it is not an artistic curiosity. No, for my next project, I am looking at another region of Argentina, in the northeast, because I think that it is very important in my country as a filmmaker to not always be in Buenos Aires, but to give a voice and good stories to other communities. You see, we have this idea to always show Buenos Aires as the European capital of South America and to avoid filming the native people, and so, I have no desire to feed into that tradition. That is also why I am very happy about my film being shown at AFI Fest because their festival supports this kind of cinema that I have created here with Piedra Sola.

Q: Lastly Alejandro, for your next project, do you want to continue working in a documentary fiction hybrid style?

A: No, I feel that in the next film I will move more into fiction, but I will continue working with local people from the region, non-professional actors, because I feel that to make a good fiction film, you need to do it like a documentary. And conversely, if you want to make a good documentary, you need to think in terms of fiction filmmaking. So, in a way, I am going to put my focus in the story, the fiction with this documentary approach, but this is a challenge for me because to make a good fiction, you need to be very real.

My thanks to Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf for this conversation and a special thanks goes to Johanna Calderón-Dakin, Senior Publicity Associate for AFI Fest, for introducing us.

vientocine.com/Piedra-Sola

Generoso Fierro

AFI Fest 2020

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Originally published on Ink 19 on November 4, 2020

AFI Fest 2020
Virtual • October 15-21, 2020

Since our landing in Los Angeles back in 2015, we have made the American Film Institute’s yearly showcase, AFI Fest, the definitive festival to help us define the year’s achievements in the medium. Arriving during the anchor leg of festival season each fall, AFI Fest is that curatorial effort that not only draws in significant world premieres, but also the finest efforts that have been honored at different festivals throughout the year.

As 2020 has seen a new normal go into effect for almost every aspect of life thanks to the novel coronavirus, and with every public event with live attendance being either cancelled or dramatically reduced down in scope, we wondered over the summer if AFI Fest would decide to sit this year out, as Cannes had so prudently chosen to do at the height of the outbreak in Europe. We also pondered as we read the news of Cannes’ cancellation as to how that highly influential event’s absence would take its toll on the festival programming that usually follows in its wake, but when Toronto, New York, and Venice made their decisions to move forward with varying degrees of scope, we started to have a glimmer of hope that AFI would find a path towards at least a virtual festival, and thankfully, between October 15th and 21st, they did.

Last year, AFI Fest added a dedicated section of documentary features and shorts, and the inaugural AFI Conservatory Showcase, and this year’s completely virtual edition of the festival proudly continued its commitment to these efforts. In total, AFI Fest 2020 programmed 124 titles which played in the aforementioned Conservatory Showcase and Documentary sections, as well as blocks dedicated to World Cinema, New Auteurs, Cinema’s Legacy, Short Film Competition, and the Meet the Press Film Festival.

Beyond the eclectic film programming this year, each day also saw a different informative edition of the AFI Summit, a series of thought-provoking conversations and panel discussions featuring acclaimed filmmakers, top industry executives, and high-profile thought leaders. 2020 also included four tributes, as AFI Fest honored documentarian Kirby Dick, directors Mira Nair and Sofia Coppola, and Academy Award-winning actress, singer, and dancer Rita Moreno.

Given that this year’s AFI Fest was virtual for all, we converted the time that we normally would have spent waiting in lines into consuming even more content than we have ever during any of our last five trips through AFI Fest’s programming. Similar to our method in years past with our coverage of the festival, we will not review any of the Summits, Tributes, or short films that we saw, but unlike years past, rather than providing reviews for every one of the twenty-three features we viewed, we will instead only focus on our absolute favorites from AFI Fest 2020 because, during these strange and urgent days, we want you to know that these are the films that need to be seen.

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Collectiv (Collective) / dir. Alexander Nanau

On October 30, 2015, a fire occurred in the Colectiv music club in Bucharest that directly resulted in the deaths of 27 people and left over 100 injured. An investigation that followed proved that the club had received an operating license without a proper inspection from the Fire Department, which caused a public uproar, but when a subsequent story written by Gazeta Sporturilor journalist, Catalin Tolontan and his team, verified that 38 of the victims, many of whom had non-life threatening burns, had died in the weeks following the tragedy from hospital infections caused by a criminally negligent dilution of the disinfectants supplied to the burn wards, it led to demonstrations that forced a toppling of the Romanian government. Now, with a population out for revenge, Vlad Voiculescu, a well-meaning patient rights advocate, is selected to fulfill the role of Health Minister to control the damage, and it is here in the narrative where director Nanau provides you with seldom-seen, simultaneous access into both the inner-workings of the Minister’s office and the diligent team at the Gazeta Sporturilor as they continue to uncover a wide-ranging network of corruption that existed at every level of a government that strived to defraud the very healthcare system it was charged to administer for its members’ own personal gain. Throughout Collective, director Alexander Nanau carefully balances this rare glimpse into both sides of a system going down in ruins, while masterfully keeping the human suffering of the victims, and their families, omnipresent in the viewers’ minds.

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Notturno / dir. Gianfranco Rosi

The winner of the Arca Cinema Giovani Award at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno is his first feature since his Oscar nominated 2016 film, Fuocoammare (Fire At Sea), which dealt with the tragedy of the European Migrant crisis as seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old refugee named Samuele. As the aftermath of war has been the focus of his work, Rosi, with his fifth feature, Notturno, filmed, for over three years, the regions where the actions of ISIS have been the most devastating between Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon, pausing his camera on the people of these places where horrific acts of violence have occurred. For everyone you meet in Notturno, war has been their reality for a very long time, and so Rosi includes into his narrative, observational footage of more of the mundane actions of people who are trying to regain some sense of normalcy, such as hunters looking for game at dusk, to present a harsh contrast to scenes of people who cannot get through the day without dealing with the grim reminders of conflict. From the child who discuss the brutal images of war that are realized in his classmates’ crayon sketches at school, to the mother who listens on her phone aloud to voicemail messages from her daughter who had been abducted by ISIS, Notturno goes beyond those war documentaries that flood you with scenes of carnage until you are rendered numb. By employing an impressive array of sumptuously framed landscapes, coupled with a sound design of overwhelming silences against the witnessing of crushed souls and cries of sadness, you are forever reminded that war is not a contained moment of time that can be simply examined like the pages of a history book.

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Piedra Sola (Lonely Rock) / dir. Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf

Inspired by a poem from legendary Argentine folk singer and writer, Atahualpa Yupanqui, director Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf has crafted his successful debut feature, Piedra Sola, which smartly blends ethnographic film elements with a fictional plot that adeptly balances the physical and metaphysical through the observance of nature, cultural rites, and the day-to-day necessities of human survival. Over the course of one year, director Tarraf, cinematographer Alberto Balazs, and a small crew lived with llama farmer, Ricardo Fidel, and his family in their home high in the Andes in the remote village of El Condor in Sierra de Jujuy, Argentina, and it is there where he filmed the story of Ricardo and his community’s efforts to preserve the harmony between their people and Pachamama (mother nature). Piedra Sola begins with Ricardo’s family and the ritual slaughter of one of their llamas as a blood offering to Pachamama, but despite their oblation, some of Ricardo’s other llamas are found dead, which prompts Ricardo to hunt for the mythical puma that he believes is singling out his herd alone. As Ricardo travels away from El Condor on his quest to find the puma, he goes on both a physical and spiritual journey that ascends the mountainous landscape and varying planes of existence contained in his village’s cosmology. What is remarkable in Piedra Sola is that with most ethnographic cinema, there is always the fear of exoticising the people witnessed, and in turn, an exploitation of a culture’s identity, but that feeling of exoticising never exists in Piedra Sola, as Tarraf and the masterful lens of Balazs blend pure observation and the constructed narrative elements into a form of storytelling that is always reverent in its discovery. This is an exceptional achievement for Tarraf, especially considering Piedra Sola‘s lean 82-minute running time.

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Hopper/Welles / dir. Orson Welles

A year after Dennis Hopper achieved worldwide acclaim and was tabbed as a counterculture icon for directing his debut feature, Easy Rider, he sat down in Los Angeles for conversation, dinner, and what appeared to be several hundred gin and tonics, with the great Orson Welles, who, some thirty years prior, had equally realized a similar status as an outsider auteur who was also about to feel the wrath of the Hollywood system. Recently restored as a stand-alone feature, Hopper/Welles was originally filmed to be a small segment for the unsuccessful Welles project, The Other Side of the Wind. Edited together in a way that feels as raw and vital as when the conversation occurred fifty years go, it doesn’t take long for the pointed questions by Welles, all asked for dramatic intent, to hit their mark on Hopper, who responds on the shaky, but sharp side for the early portion of the film, but when the gin and tonics begin to take their toll and waves of indifference fill Hopper’s responses, the film’s tension is lost. Until those less lucid drunken moments though, the pair share their personal thoughts on the state of cinema at the time, discussing the work of Renais, Antonioni, and Buñuel. And when questions of American sensibilities and issues of national identity arise, Hopper’s life and his home studio editing of The Last Movie in Taos, New Mexico, which was situated close to multiple governmental munitions factories, bring out the paranoia in both men and some of the most interesting conversation in the film. For cineastes particularly, there is a special takeaway from Hopper/Welles: in knowing the poor outcome of Hopper’s sophomore effort, The Last Movie, and in listening to Hopper’s commitment to his maverick approach, which he is confident will not be well-received by the public, we gain a deep respect for his singular vision. In the end, despite the downturn in intensity during the latter third, Hopper/Welles remains as an amazing document of when the torch of old Hollywood’s dissatisfaction is handed off to a bright, irreverent talent, who based on his explanations and reflections, might have seen the road of cinematic misery coming, but moved forward regardless of his fears due to his profound love and knowledge of the medium.

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El Prófugo (The Intruder) / dir: Natalia Meta

What is the source of the phantom sound that is suspiciously emanating from voice actress and choir singer, Inés (Erica Rivas)? Based on the novel, El mal minor by C.E. Feiling, and with a screenplay written by director Meta, this clever feature sits in a giallo-esque frame and plays out with comedic undertones as our protagonist Inés deals with the ramifications of a shocking incident that occurs at the start of the film while she is on vacation with her boyfriend, Leopoldo (Daniel Handler), whose ideas of romance and frivolity in a foreign land are never quite what Inés seems to have desired. When Inés eventually returns home, the ugly event that she witnessed begins to infiltrate her mind through bouts of insomnia and nightmares, which dissolve the border between her reality and dreams, and as Inés returns to the studio and her career of dubbing voices for films, the microphone she uses begins to start picking up some mysterious sounds that seem to come directly from her own throat. As these odd sounds disturb Inés’ ability to perform at work, the perplexing utterances also manifest when she is singing in the all-female choir that is her passion, leaving her unable to stay in key with her fellow vocalists. With Inés’ world coming apart, she receives “support” in the form of her mother, Marta (Pedro Almodóvar regular, Cecilia Roth), who comes to stay with her for a while. But despite Mom’s dispensing of rapid sage advice, and the introduction of a Phantom of the Opera-styled organ tuner named Alberto (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) into Inés’ life, the “intruder” living inside of Inés, continues to express itself at will. The traditional horror genre elements in The Intruder and its deliberately slow pace work exceptionally well in creating a mood for the film which places Inés in what feels like a dangerous physical predicament, leaving the door open for you to interpret her phantom voice as less of a paranormal or psychic warning system, and possibly more of a symbol of the internal struggle of a woman who is seeking to find her own way in dealing with traditional interpretations of love and family. Much of the credit to the film’s success goes to Erica Rivas, who embodies Inés with a complex blend of fragility and sadness, coupled with a staunch determination to realize her inner self.

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Jacinta / dir. Jessica Earnshaw

While at the Maine Correctional Center working on a photo essay that examined aging in prison, director Jessica Earnshaw met Rosemary, an inmate at the center, and the mother of the titular Jacinda, who was also incarcerated at the same prison. As Earnshaw began to spend time with both Rosemary and Jacinta, observing their relationship closely, Earnshaw turned away from her photo essay and began to record the interactions of this mother and daughter who have been battling years of addiction in and outside of confinement. When Jacinta is paroled before her mother, Earnshaw chooses to follow Jacinta back to her hometown of Lewiston, Maine, where the young woman checks into a sober home to try and stay straight while attempting to reestablish her relationship with her then 10-year old daughter, Caylynn. Over the years that follow, Earnshaw closely documents Jacinta’s struggles to stay sober, her stumbles back into drug abuse and theft, and her family and friends who take both passive and active roles in Jacinta’s quest to stay clean so that she can be the mother she wants to be to Caylynn. For her debut documentary feature film, Earnshaw presents us with one of the most intimate portrayals of addiction that we have seen in some time, as we the viewers are given this rare view of not only the sometimes harrowing life or death choices of Jacinta, but also her personal dialogs with Earnshaw, who as a filmmaker, consistently straddles a difficult line between being the objective observer of a subject and a concerned friend. In the end, Earnshaw’s portrait of Jacinta never feels opportunistic, divisive, or exploitative, as it was clearly made with Jacinta’s full approval, and with the overall mission to serve as a harbinger for those who might be on the same destructive path.

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Mila (Apples) / dir. Christos Nikou

The global pandemic at the center of Christos Nikou’s debut feature, Apples, is a very powerful malady that is attacking the memory of all of its victims. One of these victims is Aris (Aris Servetalis), a mild mannered Athenian man who wakes up on a bus in a state of amnesia, a disease which has become so prevalent, that a governmental memory recovery program has been established solely to deal with the large influx of new patients. Set during the time prior to when we all became slaves to our digital devices, Aris is tasked by his doctors to create new memories for himself based on a prescribed list of recommended activities, and he is also given a Polaroid camera to document the completion of these essential new experiences in order to assemble a scrapbook that he can use as a substitute for his lost past. Doing as he is told, Aris spends his days fulfilling the duties needed to make his picture-perfect moments (riding a child’s bicycle, posing with a sex worker), and on a trip to see Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre at a local movie theater, Aris meets Anna (Sofia Georgovassili), who is equally afflicted with amnesia and medically charged with capturing the required, yet violent cinematic excursion, with a photograph of herself alone in front of the film’s poster. Having now met, this pair of amnesiacs share their similar predestined memories in an analog version of today’s social media culture where we all post the same media selected items of daily importance in an banal attempt to state an individual voice. Having worked as an assistant director to his fellow countryman, Yorgos Lanthimos, for his breakthrough 2009 feature, Dogtooth, Christos Nikou, has clearly gained some inspiration from Lanthimos’ style of depicting people who exist in an alternate universe constructed specifically for them that allows us to question the societal norms that we follow as law without resisting. Nikou’s use of absurdist humor throughout Apples is effective, in that it allows the film’s message to be delivered without a heavy-handedness that might overwhelm the essential humanity of Aris and Anna, who like us, may someday look back on a lifetime of experiences that we might have never wanted in the first place.

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SPECIAL MENTION: Out of the Blue / dir. Dennis Hopper

After the overwhelming success of Hopper’s 1969 directorial debut, Easy Rider, Universal Studios greenlit the actor/director’s next production, The Last Movie, and gave him a budget of one million dollars and total creative control of the project. With money in hand and a major studio’s backing, Hopper flew to Peru and spent most of 1970 making his sophomore film, which garnered the Critics Prize at the 1971 Venice Film Festival, while notoriously falling at the box office. Disheartened by the failure of The Last Movie, Hopper concentrated solely on acting over the next decade, and turned in a plethora of excellent performances, most notably in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend and in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. After Apocalypse Now, Hopper was signed to star in a small Canadian feature titled CeBe, but when producers fired the film’s director, Hopper immediately stepped in to direct and quickly authored a script geared towards the talents of his young co-star, Linda Manz, and her admiration of punk rock. The film would be renamed Out of the Blue, and Manz would turn in a once in a lifetime performance as a troubled young woman who turns to punk rock and her love of Elvis Presley to cope with the crushing realities of having a heroin-addicted mother (Sharon Farrell), and a father (Hopper) who is serving a prison sentence for killing a school bus full of children while driving drunk behind the wheel of his truck. As Cebe, Manz’s emotionally erratic portrayal feels natural and embodies the punk mindset in a way where so many mainstream Hollywood films of that era failed, like Times Square. Generoso has long been a devotee of Out of the Blue, and he loudly extolled its virtues when he heard the sad news that Linda Manz had passed away in August of this year. The new 4K restoration that screened at AFI Fest finally allows audiences to experience the full effect Out of the Blue, with its loud thuds and its bleak imagery that harshly examine the rapid decline of the American family.

All films were screened at AFI Fest 2020 presented by Audi. Many thanks to AFI for another outstanding year of cinema and conversations, and a special thanks to Johanna Calderón-Dakin, Senior Publicity Associate for AFI Fest, who made our festival coverage possible.

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Feature photo: Still of Catalin Tolontan from Alexander Nanau’s Collective. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

fest.afi.com

Generoso and Lily Fierro

Liberté

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Originally published on Ink 19 on June 23, 2020

Liberté
directed by Albert Serra

This review of Albert Serra’s Liberté was inspired by and is dedicated to the experimental filmmaker, Luther Price, who died at the age of 58 last week, leaving behind some of the strongest images that I have experienced on screen. The very first piece of Price’s that I viewed—which was fortuitously screened at the film society run by his teacher, Saul Levine—was his 1989 short which was produced at the height of the early AIDS epidemic, Sodom. To create this work, Price assembled gay porn footage that he salavged out of dumpsters in Boston’s red light district, affectionately known then to locals as “The Combat Zone.” This borderline grotesque, non-couple friendly porn was mixed with the sounds of Gregorian chants and additional found footage from Biblical epics that were discovered by Price, which altogether left me emotionally staggered by an atmosphere that no constructed narrative film has ever been able to duplicate.

So, for that film and for much of his subsequent work that I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to see, I will always be forever grateful to Price for expanding my expectations for what can be achieved in film by incorporating a radical and distinct production ethos. Price’s work throughout his career, like many experimental filmmakers, was so reliant on process. In his particular idiom, that process was not in filming, but in the selection of found footage, the manipulation of what he found, and the way that the film would be shown, be it the chemicals added to the print or the burying of film reels in his own backyard to produce rot and mold. What I gained from Price was not this fleeting feeling of solely witnessing the notorious or audacious within his work, but a hunger as a viewer to understand the minutia contained within the creative process of a filmmaker prior to, or even shortly after, seeing the final product to fully appreciate the work. Over the years, in uncovering the creative mysteries behind a film, whatever magic in the unknown that I’ve lost along the way has usually been replaced with a keener understanding of how the elements selected aimed to advance the director’s intent, leaving me to judge the final piece’s success based on not only my immediate reactions to the work, but also on whether those reactions aligned with the director’s desires.

As for Albert Serra’s Liberté, my viewing came on the heels of my appreciation for what the director accomplished with his feature, The Death of Louis the XIV, a claustrophobic observation of the final days of the bedridden monarch who was adeptly portrayed by French New Wave icon, Jean-Pierre Léaud. Serra’s camera hovers over Louis’ bed as his family wanders in and out of the room, politicians debate, and doctors unemotionally probe Louis while his body rots from gangrene and his reign slowly dissipates along with his mortal coil. Serra’s ability to keep an emotional distance throughout these morbid proceedings, even during uncomfortable moments of physical intimacy, breaks with much of what we have come to expect from a historical period piece. My admiration of The Death of Louis the XIV was distinctly aided by understanding Serra’s unique process in its creation, so I feel that in order to properly review Liberté, which uses a bold experimental production ethos to generate its narrative through performance, I must give a basic plot setup, and then explore what I gleaned from reading and listening to multiple interviews with Serra about his production philosophies in the making of Liberté, as it is a feature that demands to be reviewed on both a procedural and outcome level.

Set entirely in a small patch of forest, Liberté begins in the short moments before sunset. As the sun falls from the sky, a group of libertines engage in discussions that set the historical context of their period, one in which the emerging French Revolution’s impact has become a concern for the libertines, who must now seek other European nations for shelter as they have lost their prerogatives of status and protection which were once bestowed upon them by the now ravaged monarchy. This pastoral setting away from the mob violence engulfing Paris is converted into a hedonistic court in which the libertines can exercise their now infamous agendas as they see fit. When the sun has completely set, and the group is covered under the security of darkness, they begin their nefarious practices of sexual and violent acts upon one another, and Serra moves our focus from one flesh abused cluster to another within and outside of the libertine’s appointed carriages and gives us only graphic conversations and verbal descriptions of depravity to break up the unrelenting visual debauchery.

Liberté, the film, is the third incarnation of this libertine material. Serra originally produced Liberté as a stage play in Germany, and subsequently developed it into an installation piece involving two separate screens that couldn’t simultaneously be seen by the audience. He then adapted this installation into its feature film version, which based on the description above, you may believe is yet another film inspired by the writings of Diderot and de Sade. But the particular way in which Serra decided to create Liberté distinctly sets it apart from its predecessors—it embraces the libertine ethos in not only what the scenes present, but also in how the scenes were captured, all while paradoxically providing evidence that any verbatim visual retelling of libertine practices on film will be less distressing and less impactful than our own imagination’s ruminations on such practices of supreme hedonism.

Liberté had little that could be called a script: no dialog was composed by Serra, and he only created the atmosphere for the shoot. Professional and non-professional actors were used (including some of the film’s technicians who were drafted into graphic scenes without much notice), and Serra did not offer any specific direction for what the actors should do during filming. As he commented to film critic Dennis Lim in a recent interview: “The cast was naked in all senses. Everyone is naked in front of the camera. They have no help, no external help.” Serra utilized his lack of communication to encourage more action amongst his actors, as he relied on the conflict between professional actors’ natural inclination to craft a character, their expectations of direction from him, and his silence and non-intervention to ultimately force them into more natural, rather than expository or dramatic, actions.

Furthermore, Serra instructed his camera operators to only use zoom lenses and to remain distant from the performances. The exclusive use of the zoom was specifically designed so that the actors would never truly know where the focus was at any particular time, preventing their trained impulses from altering their positioning and body language to adjust to the shot. Separately, the distance of the film crew even further lessened the actors’ physical connection to the director, whom they might have seeked for protection or guidance if they felt a scene was failing. Lastly, Serra insisted that shooting occur in hours-long stretches to reinforce the actors’ feeling of indifference towards the camera. Amazingly, this amount of improvisational freedom, combined with physical distancing, resulted in the portrayal of sexual acts that never transpire in a shocking fashion by today’s standards. Nor are these moments sexually gratifying for the participants, which amplifies the feeling of waste that is at the core of the libertine doctrine.

The aforementioned filming process by Serra resulted in over 300 unique hours of footage which was then given to three editors to assemble. Each editor was instructed to only utilize the footage that Serra deemed to have merit, and those pieces were then combined in a way such that no traditional narrative tension could be formed. As a result of these narrative elimination efforts, the editing structure creates its own form of tension for the viewer, who continuously searches for meaning within and between the scenes and may not find anything satisfactory in all of the excess.

Though differing in their genres, their source images, and their addressed codes of morality, both Luther Price’s Sodom and Albert Serra’s Liberté use extreme images cultivated from reality to underscore our apathy towards human suffering. In the case of Sodom, the visceral images of tissue damage during the sex act mixed with the austere sounds and visuals related to Christianity embody the public’s craven demonization of gay sex during the AIDS epidemic that led to the hypocritical apathy towards the vulnerable, high-risk group that increased and prolonged their suffering overall. And in Liberté, Serra’s transformation of the libertine’s lurid concepts into perfunctory and mundane images forces us to confront our own apathy towards the suffering and extremes we regularly see and dismiss in our current media saturated world. Through their processes and their films, Price and Serra remind us that it is not the image that should disturb us—it is the absence of our reaction to it and the lack of our desire to understand its subject and context that should keep us up at night and inspire us to change.

www.cinemaguild.com/theatrical/liberte.html

Generoso Fierro

Tommaso

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Originally published on Ink 19 on June 1, 2020

Tommaso
directed by Abel Ferrara
starring Willem Dafoe, Anna Ferrara, Christina Chiriac

In one of the more bizarre twists to occur to me as a critic, I am forced to reference two songs released by The Monkees in 1967 in back-to-back reviews. Just a few days ago, I stepped outside of my normal comfort zone of critiquing film for Ink 19 to share my thoughts on the latest offering from Sparks, A Steady Drip, Drip Drip, which includes the wonderfully poppy cut, “Lawnmower.” It was there where I referenced, “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” the Monkees-sung, Goffin-King hit, which like the aforementioned Sparks track, is a bouncy tongue-in-cheek ode to suburban splendor with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Astonishingly on that same Monkees-wavelength, director Abel Ferrara’s film Tommaso, his latest effort with frequent collaborator actor Willem Dafoe, made my thoughts turn to the Neil Diamond-penned, Monkees classic, “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” For those who are familiar with Ferrara’s filmography, you might be wondering how this mental phenomenon could’ve happened in me, and I believe that my cognitions lie somewhere in the realistic design Ferrara implemented in Tommaso that culminates in a constant tension and moments of vitriol between the titular character (played by Dafoe) and his wife Nikki (played by Ferrara’s real-life spouse, Christina Chiriac). It is these ugly verbal moments that mirror Diamond’s iconic song the most, where more than one partner must share the blame for their collapsing relationship. The major difference between Tommaso and Diamond’s song is that you never entirely know whether the culprit sparking the conflict that transpires in the film is Tomasso, Nikki, or the remnants of Ferrara’s and Dafoe’s personal and artistic pasts being dredged up through the experimental process that formed their characters.

For Abel Ferrara, this new merging of memory, performance, and process with fiction comes on the heels of his last five years of filmmaking, which largely saw the director creating feature-length documentaries on subjects ranging from a portrait of the eclectic neighborhood in Rome that Ferrara currently shares with Dafoe (2017’s Piazza Vittorio), to a look at the vital and raw 1970s filmmaking that was spawned from Ferrara’s hometown of New York City (2019’s The Projectionist). Both filmmaking and Rome are at play in Tommaso, which has a Dafoe/Ferrara hybrid, an American director conceptualizing a film entitled Siberia (yes, that same fiction feature that Ferrara has been working on for the last few years) whilst at first living seemingly contently with his much younger wife Nikki and their toddler daughter Anna (Ferrara’s actual offspring) in the Eternal City. Tomasso goes about his days sharing his parental duties with Nikki, taking Italian language classes to allow him to assimilate into his new country, while running acting workshops for young thespians. But during multiple evenings, Tommaso confronts the grim moments that occurred during his years of substance abuse at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where he appears to have cathartic releases while sharing his experiences and listening to others recall their issues with addiction.

As night turns back into day over and over again and Tommaso voices more of his demons, he continues going about his routine, but concerning images start to appear around him, and he rapidly magnifies them in his mind, causing him to lose control of his emotions. Perhaps his moments of anger are due to the witnessing of actual harbingers that threaten his family, but as we the viewer question whether these precarious moments are real or not, there is one thing that is certain: Tommaso’s actions reveal a man who is falling deeply into destructive behavioral patterns which could potentially cause irreparable harm to the family he loves.

It would be easy to assume that Dafoe is merely a stand in for Ferrara, given the casting of Ferrara’s own wife and child and that our protagonist is a film director, but the constant references throughout the film that harken back to Dafoe’s own career, most notably one scene involving Dafoe’s role as Jesus in Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, indicates that perhaps this character study is more than just the case of an actor portraying the verité of his director’s life: it is a psychological exploration of the actor and director relationship and the collaborative, but possibly personally destructive, process of storytelling. Furthermore, Tommaso directly references one of Ferrara’s previous efforts, a feature that also blurs the line between fact and fiction and deals with certain facets from his own career, 1993’s Dangerous Game, where Ferrara tabbed Harvey Keitel, who starred in Ferrara’s iconic Bad Lieutenant, to take on the role of maniacal director Eddie Israel, who destroys his own family when he obsesses over the underlying truth in a story he is filming about a couple’s disintegrating marriage.

Like in Dangerous Game, Ferrara also presents a film within a film in Tommaso by incorporating ruminations on Siberia, the film that is consuming Tommaso and likely Ferrara himself. The frustrations from this rumored overdue production from Ferrara are brought up in conversations between Tommaso and Nikki and through storyboards that he shows her, and us the viewers, on multiple occasions. Siberia‘s focus on a rugged main character, one who battles the savage elements of nature, suggests to us that Tommaso may be having doubts about his own masculinity due to his advanced age, which contributes to his mistrust towards Nikki. In addition, as we see Nikki’s face appear as inspiration in the production materials, we begin to suspect that his lack of trust in her as his wife may also be a projection of his lack of confidence in his own artistic abilities to finish his project, which adds an additional layer of tension to the narrative and to their imploding relationship.

As Ferrara expounded upon during interviews when Tommaso premiered at Cannes in 2019, the techniques used for this film were greatly informed by the director’s recent documentary work. Given the improvisational methods incorporated here, cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, who has worked extensively with Werner Herzog since 1995, having lensed notable Herzog documentaries such as Grizzly ManInto the Abyss, and Encounters at the End of the World, was brought in to film in a documentary style in order to maintain the feeling of realism and to capture honest reactions from the actors. One key scene that exemplifies the benefits of this production approach occurs when Dafoe’s Tommaso is sent downstairs from his apartment to engage with a homeless man who is howling outside of his window. According to Ferrara and Dafoe in interviews, that scene was virtually unscripted, with Dafoe meeting the offending character/actor for the first time during their filmed confrontation when they were both forced to improvise the moment.

Though distinctly different in terms of their respective production processes, Tommaso in many ways brings to mind Jafar Panahi’s superlative 2018 film, 3 Faces, a film that also incorporates fiction and non-fiction elements to focus in on both a filmmaker’s distinct personal dilemmas in conjunction with the shift in attitudes in that society while continuing the contemporary trend of examining the significance of traditional narrative storytelling. With Tommaso, Ferrara has clearly gained much from his recent forays into documentary film, and the final result is a vital and contrasting type of intense living portraiture of two creative people whose lives have become intertwined geographically, personally, and artistically.

www.kinolorber.com/film/tommaso

Generoso Fierro

Vitalina Varela

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Originally published on Ink 19 on May 18, 2020

Vitalina Varela
directed by Pedro Costa
starring Vitalina Varela, Ventura
OPTEC

Emerging from a plane that has landed on a desolate airstrip in Lisbon is a singular faceless figure walking barefoot. The plane has traveled from Cape Verde to bring a woman to attend the funeral of her husband, Joaquim, who had left their homeland to work as a bricklayer decades earlier and who had promised, in vain, to purchase the woman a plane ticket so that one day they could be together. The woman walks from the airstrip, like a disembodied soul herself, through the darkened, maze-like streets and alleys of the impoverished Lisbon suburb of Cova da Moura to reach the hovel that was as much a false promise from her husband as it was a disappointing reality. The woman is the eponymous Vitalina Varela, and if this scenario sounds familiar, Vitalina once recounted these events in the early moments of Pedro Costa’s previous feature, Horse Money, and after six years, Costa, with Vitalina’s and the townspeople’s assistance, has reconstructed this heartbreaking moment from her life with a filmmaking process and visual style that has defined his particular approach to non-fiction storytelling.

The daylight, which is a rare sight in most of Costa’s work, is almost completely absent in Vitalina Varela, with only small strands of light filtering in through the fissures of doorways in Joaquim’s shack, which amplify the darkness and couple with the nearby faint sounds of people, radios, and cars to suggest to Vitalina that the home and surrounding neighborhood that belonged to Joaquim, now exclude her in his absence. Left alone with no one to comfort her, Vitalina rifles through the photographs of Joaquim, and she begins an investigation into her own past with him, wondering whether those days were truly ones with any hope for a positive future. Seeing the despair in the faces of Joachim’s colleagues and neighbors and the abandoned construction efforts in the house, Vitalina looks to the improvised memorial she has built for Joaquim in his living room and yells out to his spirit in search of any reason why he left her and Cape Verde behind to surrender to this desperate, crestfallen place.

As Vitalina is now forever tied to Pedro Costa’s work, so is, since his 2006 film, Colossal Youth, the presence of the actor Ventura, who in recent years has been in ailing health, and his physical deterioration is as much emotionally woven into the mesh of the painful narrative of the film as Vitalina’s recollection of her memories and mourning. Here, the frail Ventura portrays the local priest who offers services in his empty, decrepit church and who is one of the few to extend to Vitalina any semblance of real communication. Ventura becomes not only a connection to Christ and a sign that the townspeople have abandoned their faith during hardship, but also a metaphorical guide to Vitalina as he helps her understand how her husband had become intertwined into the history of exploitation of the people who traveled to this part of Lisbon aspiring for a better life. “Men were born out of the shadows,” explains Ventura, and as the film progresses and the reality of Joaquim’s dilemma grows more tangible to Vitalina, the endless darkness that has engulfed each frame throughout the film becomes not only emblematic of Vitalina’s sorrow, but also of Joaquim’s struggles and the pain and futility inside of all the residents of Cova da Moura.

Throughout Vitalina Varela, Costa continuously reinforces the brilliance of his established methodology: his distinctive audiovisual compositions exemplify and revitalize the longstanding tradition of portraiture. A good portrait artist captures the essence of reality, adds a layer of fiction/bias on it through perception/perspective and preserves the combination across time. As a result of his years of entrenchment in the physical edifices and lives of the people of Cova da Moura with his small crew, Costa is able to assemble an intimate, deeply layered portrait of Vitalina Varela from the living pictures captured by cinematographer Leonardo Simões’ masterful eye and the keen sound development by João Gazua and Hugo Leitão. And, due to Costa’s intuitive, time intensive construction of docufiction, we, the viewers, feel a heightened level of empathy for Vitalina that few filmed portraits have ever been able to accomplish for their protagonists.

In Vitalina Varela, Costa’s first film to feature a female lead since 2000’s Vanda’s Room, we witness the reconciliation of decades of sadness through Vitalina’s immersion into the oppressed community that once devoured her husband’s hope, and by this widow’s placement there as a body of maternal strength and survival to the men who suffered with him, Vitalina can ascend past her own sorrow by imbibing these men with the spirit of all of the women whom they also left behind.

grasshopperfilm.com/film/vitalina-varela

Generoso Fierro

The Emperor of Michoacan

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Originally published on Ink 19 on January 6, 2020

The Emperor of Michoacan
directed by James Ramey and Arturo Pimentel
Amadis Films

Having been initially drawn to the restoration of the majestic Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin in the town of Pátzcuaro in the Michoacán state of Mexico, directors James Ramey and Arturo Pimentel, would become witness to and subsequently chronicle the history and growing revitalization of the culture of the suppressed Purépecha people in their feature documentary, The Emperor of Michoacán.

Beginning in the dark early morning hours before the celebration of the Purépecha New Year, we follow the residents of multiple towns in Michoacán as they continue their resurgence of an indigenous tradition that saw a renaissance in 1983 after several hundred years of silence following the torture and execution of the Purépecha empire’s last emperor, Tangaxoan II, by Spanish conquistadors. Tangaxoan II’s death led to the Spanish government’s installation of puppet rulers who began a reign that sought to extinguish all remnants of the religion and customs of the Purépecha people.

Directors Pimentel and Ramey then examine the Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin where we see the remnants of the Augustine convent that was originally part of the building, as well as significant murals that depict the geography and culture of Michoacán’s residents: a visual tribute to the accomplishments of Don Lázaro Cárdenas, the former governor of Michoacán, during his tenure as President of Mexico and a mural that portrays the fateful moment when conquistador Cristóbal de Olid was welcomed by Tangaxoan II. What follows are interviews with residents and scholars who then explain how the Spaniards pillaged the land, brought disease, and forced the people of that region to abandon their faith and customs while moving the location of the capital city multiple times to build a more Spanish-centric place. However, in weaving these accounts together, the directors confusedly deconstruct the timeline between Cristóbal de Olid’s arrival, the execution of Tangaxoan II, the unification of Pátzcuaro under Don Vasco de Quiroga, and the revitalization of the Purépecha New Year in 1983. Specifically, Pimentel and Ramey break away from the historical timeline of the Michoacán state that they establish in the first thirty minutes of the film to explain the shifting of the Purépecha centers of worship during the pre-Hispanic period in the region and the relocation of capital cities under Don Vasco de Quiroga’s reign as Bishop post-colonization, before disclosing the circumstances that led to the brutal death of Tangaxoan II, which took place in 1530 before Don Vasco’s appointment as the Bishop of Michoacán in 1536. This segment provides some more historical information about the state and the tensions between the cities within, but its timing and execution in the narrative fundamentally distract away from the understanding of the suppression and revitalization of the Purépecha culture.

As the directors delve into the pre- and post-Hispanic history of the Purépecha people in Michoacán and richly document today’s Purépecha New Year and Day of the Dead rituals, they similarly interrupt the narrative of the history and the restoration of Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin. During this interruption, we get the opportunity to understand the tensions between pre- and post-Hispanic elements in the Purépecha New Year and Day of the Dead rituals, and in turn, we are able to see how the current community reconciles and addresses these tensions in the rituals themselves, which is the strongest element of the film. Consequently, when we return to the Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin in the final fifteen minutes of The Emperor of Michoacán, the transition is awkward, for the directors speed through the theater’s restoration and ultimately leave gaps in understanding how the theater fits into the preservation of the Purépecha culture. By this point, we understand the theater’s tribute in name to Tangaxoan II, and we understand the importance of the elements of history and culture in the artwork showcased in the theater. But, we still don’t fully know if the theater was ever used for gatherings or celebrations dedicated to Purépecha traditions in any way. As the film approaches its end, we see dance performances for the film’s own screening at the theater as well as the preparation of the fire for the New Year ritual outside, suggesting a conclusion that the theater can be a new space to facilitate the preservation of Purépecha traditions, which is commendable, but the return to the theater is too brief, and the narrative around it feels too incomplete to draw this conclusion satisfactorily.

In The Emperor of Michoacán‘s seventy-seven minute runtime, directors Pimentel and Ramey aim to execute a complex portrait of the suppression, preservation, revival, and adaptation of Purépecha culture. Though the film allows for rare and appreciated views into Purépecha history and traditions, its structure prevents it from achieving its goal. The restoration of the Cine-Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin could have been the compelling connective tissue between the history of the Purépecha people in Michoacán and the ethnographic documentation of the revived New Year and Day of the Dead rituals, but instead this component feels abridged and ultimately highlights an identity struggle in the film—it’s partially an ethnographic observation piece; it’s partially a historical documentary; it’s partially a study of a building. The Emperor of Michoacán has a scope that is too large, and though it is likely that this emerged from the filmmakers’ desire to give the fullest respect possible to the Purépecha community, the film needs more time and a clearer structure in order to accomplish a full and nuanced analysis of the endurance of Purépecha traditions in the past and in the years to come.

Generoso and Lily Fierro

Director Corneliu Porumboiu

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Originally published on Ink 19 on December 16, 2019

It was a distinct honor for me to briefly speak with director Corneliu Porumboiu at AFI Fest this year where he accompanied his latest film, the intricate comedic noir, The Whistlers (La Gomera). My adoration of Porumboiu’s work began over a decade ago after a chance screening led me to his impressively dry and satirical debut feature, 12:08 East of Bucharest, and shortly after seeing that film, I was fortunate to have the chance to see and program a couple of his promising early short films: A Trip to the City and Liviu’s Dream, at a small festival that I co-curated in Boston. The director’s 2009 feature, Police, Adjective, the winner of the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a masterwork that creatively reflected on the after effects of the 1989 Romanian revolution, a subject of so many of Porumboiu’s subsequent films released throughout this decade.

The Whistlers, Porumboiu’s sixth feature, finds the director returning to the realm of police work and the subject of language. To expand on Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), the protagonist of 2010’s Police, Adjective, Porumboiu places his detective in a drug ring operating alongside a corrupted law system; however, Cristi is less occupied by the interpretation of the Romanian language these days. Now, he is learning Silbo Gomero, a language composed entirely of whistling in order to undetectably communicate with his drug ring partners. But, Silbo Gomero is only one of the many types of languages in The Whistlers. In order to form his discourse on methods of communication, Porumboiu weaves together film noir conventions, his own cinematic language, and music into the crime drama plot of The Whistlers to create an experience that toys with our notions of how image and sound can tell a story, evoke an emotion, and modulate our expectations and reactions.

Q: I understand that the origins of The Whistlers began a decade ago when you viewed a television program on the Silbo Gomero language. Language has always been such a large part of many of your films, especially Police, Adjective, so did seeing the program somehow inspire you to revisit the character of Cristi, or were you always looking to examine that character’s progression after a decade, and the discovery of the Silbo Gomero language was a perfect mechanism?

A: In the beginning, I was really fascinated by what I read about the language, and after studying it more, I came up with the idea to put what I learned into that character from Police, Adjective. So yes, first, it was about the language, and then, it was about the exploration of the character. Because for me, the Silbo Gomero language is fascinating in that it is like a code, but it is also poetic, and at the same time it is like a bird language, which made me want to read more about it, and the more I discovered about its origins, the more I knew that it would have to be the center of the film. So then, I thought of Cristi. The reason being is that, for me, this character has always stayed in my mind due to the fact that someone like Cristi has an ideology, a way of thinking that is very inflexible, and that kind of one-dimensional thinking just simply cannot endure in the future, so I wanted to explore Cristi further by exposing him to this multifaceted language.

Q: With Police, Adjective, you took the standard urban crime genre, and you twisted the tropes of the genre by making it dialog-driven for the purposes of examining language and ethics post Ceaușescu. On the other hand, The Whistlers, by utilizing film noir as a construct, is in many ways the polar opposite of Police, Adjective, because the noir genre has so many strict demands for you to adhere to in order to be considered as noir that you cannot stray too far from the established motifs. So then, when you were imagining Cristi a decade after Police, Adjective, how did the noir motifs assist you in creating that character?

A: I should say first that I have always liked film noir a great deal. I knew that I wanted the characters in my film to exist in a setting where they felt like they could easily get double crossed and where they would have a hard time trusting communication, so the decision to go into genre film came down to something that could be seen in a character like Gilda, who is living in a world where she would have to play a role, and so she would play a role that she could borrow from cinema. My goal was to have this type of tension between the camera and the character because, in the beginning of cinema, the camera was used to tell stories. So, I decided that I wanted to have this style of two cameras, one used in the way that we are using cameras today as surveillance, but also another as a storytelling device. There were a lot of decisions that were made which were like these, and thus I went deeper into genre because I wanted a film that was more of a visual expression and not very realistic, considering that in my mind, I was thinking a lot about these niche characters and how they can build their identities due to their playing to this surveillance camera. It is this kind of second nature that develops through this second camera that becomes more important than the first, which drove me even more intensely into genre cinema.

Q: I see how you play with this genre’s archetypal characters like the anti-hero protagonist/corrupt cop and the femme fatale. And, in terms of visual motifs, you played with flashbacks, a common method in a classic noirs like The Killers, where the technique is used to recall the past to build characters, but you chose to use flashbacks to illustrate how Cristi is learning the Silbo Gomero language.

A: Yes, and the reason for that is that I wanted to have as the center of the film Cristi’s process of learning the Silbo Gomero language and form a double movement. At the beginning of the film, when he is going to learn this language, he is going to learn it to use it for something nefarious, but at the same time while Cristi is learning the language, he is reflecting on his personal history, and so there is a movement inside of the learning process. A film noir construct allowed me to do this. Otherwise, if I tried to do this in a more traditional style of storytelling, the language would appear in the middle of the film, but the metaphor would be revealed at the end.

Q: I so appreciate your casting of Catrinel Marlon as Gilda, but I understand that your search for the right actress for the part was a burdensome one. My curiosity is, given her character’s name of Gilda and how that name evokes a classic noir reference, was part of that difficulty because you couldn’t decide if the actress should or shouldn’t possess Rita Haymorth’s look and qualities?

A: It was indeed a difficult casting process for that part, but what I liked about Catrinel is that she had a type of style and body language that would allow her to become the character and build it her own way. Also, when I cast the character of the mother, for example, I wanted to her resemble Gilda in that she is an ex-femme fatale, and it is this kind of play on the imagery that I wanted in the film as well.

Q: One usually thinks of jazz music in film noir like John Lewis’ score for the 1959 film, The Odds Against Tomorrow. Could you talk about your unexpected use of classical pieces, such as Jacques Offenbach’s “Barcarolle” or Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”, in The Whistlers?

A: At first, I used classical music to build the character who worked at the hotel, to make him very unpredictable, as that clerk doesn’t want people to stay there, but then I started using music for many other purposes—for example, to create a more personal moment or to build contrast to add humor to a scene.

Q: To me, your use of music as a contrast comes through the most at the end of the film in artificial garden in Singapore. When did you decide on that particular piece of music for the final scene?

A: The music was there at the park in Singapore already. In my original script I wanted to have Iron Butterfly’s song, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” but when we got to the location and I heard them playing this other music, I thought that it was better for the scene, so I used it instead.

Q: That park was a perfect setting for the end of the film. Was that a location that you had scouted out prior to writing the script?

A: Since the beginning of my project I wanted the film to end in a certain kind of garden, a futuristic paradise, you can say, because of the way that gardens are consistently seen throughout the film. The island of La Gomera, for example, is a kind of garden, as is of course the actual garden that the mother tends to, and this is very important to what I wanted to do with The Whistlers. So, I really wanted a kind of technologically advanced garden to appear at the end of the film, and I had an instinct that I could find such a garden in Asia, in either Hong Kong or Shanghai, and I was fortunate to find one in Singapore.

Interview conducted by Generoso

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Feature photo courtesy of mk2 films.

www.thewhistlersfilm.com

DIRECTOR Sofia Bohdanowicz

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Originally published on Ink 19 on December 19th, 2019

In the first seconds of MS Slavic 7, directors Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell present an open book with side-by-side Polish and English versions of, “To Józef Wittlin on the Day of His Arrival in Toronto – 1963,” a poem written by director Bohdanowicz’s own great-grandmother, Zofia Bohdanowiczowa. The film then immediately cuts to the image of Audrey Benac (Deragh Campbell) entering a minimalist hotel room followed by a visit to the Houghton Library at Harvard to explore the correspondence between Bohdanowiczowa and Wittlin. A hybridized character combining Bohdanowicz’s experiences and family history, Campbell’s perspectives and interpretations, and elements of fiction, Audrey is the great-granddaughter of Bohdanowiczowa, and as the literary executor of the Bohdanowiczowa estate, she wants to shine a light on her great-grandmother’s work.

As MS Slavic 7 proceeds, the letters guide Audrey towards a fluid path moving between the present and the past in her memory space, allowing her to form connections to Bohdanowiczowa’s writings and more broadly to her own heritage, family, and artistic research process. As part of AFI Fest 2019, I had the opportunity to speak with director Sofia Bohdanowicz about incorporating documentary elements in her practice, portraying the research and archive process, and overall, interweaving and mirroring hers and co-director Deragh Campbell’s experiences and perspectives to create and progress the character of Audrey Benac.

Q: Before we dig into MS Slavic 7, I have to ask: were you able to access your great-grandmother’s letters before or since the film’s completion? I know that the archive access approval can sometimes be difficult to attain.

A: When we were first doing research, when I was just looking for the letters themselves, I didn’t actually go to Houghton library. I found the letters online, and I was able to request and receive PDF scans of them. But, that doesn’t make for a very interesting film!

Before shooting, we didn’t get a chance to visit Harvard, so we did a lot of research and imagined what it would be like, and then staged everything in Toronto, and we amazingly captured some uncanny resemblances in some architectural pieces on the University of Toronto campus that made the film look and feel like Harvard. We actually saw the letters in September because we were invited to screen the film at the Harvard Film Archive. It was a very easy process, and they were really warm and welcoming because we were invited guests. But, in general, those archives are open to the public, so there are some hoops you have to jump through, and it is a little bit of a process, but it’s not so bad.

Q: That’s great to hear! Getting into some university libraries can be difficult. So many require targeted, very specific searches for the approval process.

A: It’s funny. The film has brought up tensions about institutions and archives, which is not something I completely expected. I’ve had people say to me, “We’re really interested in how you’re critiquing institutions and sticking it to the man. We can tell you’re frustrated with Harvard.” I don’t feel this at all! The dissonance that’s present between access and archives wanting to preserve and venerate letters is fascinating. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the approval process; it is there for a reason. Archives put in great work to preserve artifacts, so they need to know who is looking at them because those objects must stay protected. Although the access process can be very frustrating—for example, I was just in archives in Cambridge in the UK recently, and it took us two hours to get set up—I have an appreciation for institutions and how they protect important artifacts because if they weren’t doing that, then we wouldn’t have any way of accessing our history and telling these stories.

Being able to see my great-grandmother’s letters for the first time in September was such a moving experience because the letters were just there in Houghton, waiting for me to access them. It’s very touching that they’ve been there for over fifty years, and they were taken care of and preserved all of this time. Had they not been, I would not have had the opportunity to make MS Slavic 7 and to explore my family’s history through the film. When I was holding the letters in my hand, I was doubly moved: I was moved by the fact that were my great-grandmother’s letters, her words written by her hand, and I was also moved by this act of preservation. These letters still exist. They are intact, and they are still collected together because of how much care and thought has gone into this archival system.

Q: With MS Slavic 7, you have taken the literary tradition of writers’ own roman à clef novels and made it cinematic. In literary roman à clef, the intertwining of reality and fiction is in the psychological perspective, but in cinema, the intertwining is in not only the psychological but also the audiovisual perspectives. How did you integrate how you feel, see, and hear into what Audrey does, sees and hears on screen?

A: In editing and in discussing the film, I’ve consistently stressed that Audrey is a very sensitive person. She’s a very anxious person, and she’s very layered. She’s a weighted character, so, when I think about the interactions she’s having with the archivist, with her aunt, and with the translator to a certain extent, I think sometimes they can be perceived as reality, but other times they can be perceived as her own internal perspective of an experience because this film is very much about the act of remembering and oscillating between the past and the present. That’s how the film is constructed: we’re going back and forth between Houghton library and this family reunion that she’s remembering. There’s this point of oscillation, and MS Slavic 7 is not a perfectly cerebral film in any way, but in our editing process, we kept asking ourselves, “Is she perceiving this in the here and now, or is this something she’s remembering?” because memories of interactions with people and stories we retell are perpetually changing in our minds and are sometimes modulated by what we’re experiencing in the present moment.

As for the letters themselves, we wanted to focus on three important components of what the letter as an object is, what it represents, and how you can explore that on screen. The first way that we wanted to do that was to try to simulate the experience of what it feels like to hold a letter in your hands, to hold an object that is of holy value, something that is sacred to you. So, exploring the letter as a sacred object and also trying to capture this moment of discovery were the goals of Audrey’s first day at the archive. We did that by using macro lenses, so we could have a nice, shallow depth-of-field. We focused a lot on foleying, and we were able to get these nice crinkling sounds, so you can hear the texture of the letters. We also wanted to play with subtitles at the bottom of the screen, to experiment with this idea that even though she doesn’t understand Polish, the weight of the letters’ history is still present—her great-grandmother’s spirit is still lingering, and her words are about to be discovered.

Whereas the first day focused on the object properties of the letters, the second day in the archive focused on the spirit of the letters—the letters as talismans or objects that hold magical properties. We did that by playing around with acetates and showing projections of the letters to give Audrey a different perspective to observe them. I feel the way that the scene in the archive was staged gives the letters this kind of ghost-like aura. We wanted to represent all of the distance that the letters have traveled, and she talks about that in her monologues. What kind of powers do these letters hold because of their rich history?

And finally, on the third day, we wanted to focus on the content, not only the translation, but also a recital of the letters. We wanted to capture what they sound like when they are spoken aloud. In many films, letters are explored in only one, standard way, but in making MS Slavic 7, we tried to sit down and think mindfully about different experimental ways to depict the research process and the beauty of discovery accurately.

Q: As a former researcher myself, I appreciated the veracity of your portrayal of the research process. Audrey’s attempt to digest all of her research feels so honest and real. When you dig into a topic, you can get extremely overwhelmed by the mess of information in front of you, and you know that it all comes together in some way, but getting there feels like trying to find a path in the dark. And, without an academic framework, you’re left to your own devices to find the way. You capture all of this so well. Could you speak about how you worked with Deragh to elicit this disorienting sense?

A: The monologues were Deragh’s idea. I discovered the letters, and she pitched a very intelligent structure for the film. One particular element that I was interested in were these monologues that she envisioned with a locked-off camera on a tripod, all shot in a single take. When Deragh works on a film, she really likes to focus, especially when she’s building a character, on genuine connections. She is an actor who likes to react in the moment to experiences, which I think is a brave and courageous way of operating. To prepare for the monologues, the night before shooting one of them, she read one section of the letters for the first time. And, I threw in my own notes on my great-grandmother’s words and what I thought along with some historical anecdotes, and she read those as well, and then she proceeded to fill up her own notebook with her own thoughts and ideas. The next day, we would go to a restaurant that a friend of mine managed, and she would deliver those monologues. For each one, I think we did about eight or nine takes, but they were always done in one continuous shot.

This feeling of frustration and difficulty and strangeness in articulation actually came out of the situation that we were shooting in. The film was made very cheaply with a production budget of about 5,000 dollars. My friend offered the restaurant location for free, and we went for it. He told me that the restaurant was going to be empty, but when we were filming, he would open it up for coffee in the morning. I would be all set up and ready to shoot, but then people would come in and out of the restaurant, so it was a distracting space that wasn’t great for Deragh to act and be vulnerable in. She was trying to deliver these beautifully crafted thoughts, but was being met with disruption. It was really frustrating, and we weren’t sure how it was going to work. At the same time, we didn’t have a choice. We went along with it, and thankfully, what it yielded was this effect where you can tell that she was frustrated and having a hard time pulling out her thoughts. And, I think if you were actually synthesizing and digesting your research and discovery in a busy restaurant, it would be that challenging, so everything ended up working in our favor in the end.

I love to work within the realm of what some filmmakers call process cinema. If something happens when I’m filming—for example, this situation with this restaurant that was supposed to be quiet and closed down, but was open and busy—instead of looking at it as a problem, I try to look at it and ask: What are the variables that are being offered to me right now? How can I work with them to make my film unique? How can I look at these unexpected situations as gifts? It can be an incredibly hard thing to do, but if you’re open to creatively embracing those elements, I always find you can come up with something exciting.

Q: Your film is literary in its subject but not its approach, and that’s quite an accomplishment. How did you approach the challenge of avoiding literature-in-film clichés (i.e. re-enactments of moments or letters, voice-over narration)?

A: I was recently at a film festival on the Canary Islands with Shengze Zhu, who made a film called Present.Perfect. She works in hybrid cinema as well, and she said to me, “You know, Sofia, hybrid filmmaking is cheap.” And, I started to laugh because it’s true. It’s an inexpensive and excellent way to tell a story with a small amount of money. For us, re-enactment wasn’t an option because we just didn’t have the means to go there. As for a narrator, my practice stems from a place of collecting documentary footage first, so with this project, we collected the family reunion footage before we went into shooting MS Slavic 7. It was the first thing we filmed, and we treated it as an exercise. What you see is my actual aunt and uncle’s wedding anniversary! Deragh went as a guest. She sat down at the table, and she engaged with my family. From then on, we had that footage as a base, and I could intersperse acts of restaging, so instead of having a talking head or a voice-over narration, these scenes at the reunion became the stitching fiber to tell the story.

I’m always interested in different ways that we can propel a narrative without relying on the typical tropes used in a documentary. The other thing to consider about the film is that it didn’t have a strict outline; the script was very, very loose. We knew what Deragh would be doing over the course of three days. We would go to those environments, and we would shoot those scenes, but I would shoot them very much like a documentary. For example, on the first day, when Deragh sits down to look at those letters, and she’s holding them in her hands, we shot for about forty-five minutes in silence. She continued to look at things and give her small directions here and there, but we kept it very open. Consequently, it took about nine months to edit the film, to find its voice and its trajectory, which was challenging. It was hard to find what felt right within the grammar of the film when Deragh and I were editing. But once we discovered it, we were excited that we found such a strange, compelling little film in all of the footage. We couldn’t quite believe that it existed. It just emerged from a lot of conversation, trial and error, and dedication. We met two or three times a week to edit the film.

Q: What an excavation project. What’s amazing is that it seems like your editing process ended up aligning with Audrey’s process of digging through the letters. Perhaps the energy of Audrey’s search through the letters to find the connective thread between herself and her great-grandmother led to a similar feeling of trying to find the thread between you, Deragh, and Audrey in the film, forming a resonating circle between the letters, your family history, the film’s narrative, and the film’s editing?

A: Throughout making MS Slavic 7, I had my own process when I discovered and explored the letters, not in their physical form, but in their translated, digital form. Then, when filming, there was this double layer of capturing Deragh’s live responses to the letters based on my reflections, which created a lot of mirroring and bouncing back and forth between the information, reactions, note-taking, and research practice. This process worked very well. We both feel comfortable being very vulnerable with one another. We have an open practice and a close relationship. I believe the film has such a strange and unique voice because we were so supportive of one another throughout the writing, filming, and editing process.

Q: Your closeness and trust with each other definitely comes through. Given that Audrey is somewhat of a stand-in for you, how much of Deragh’s perspective of you, which may be different from how you see yourself, is integrated into her performance?

A: It’s a fascinating thing. Audrey is a character Deragh and I developed in my first feature film, Never Eat Alone, which is about my grandmother searching for her long lost love from her twenties. She was a character who was built out of experiences that I had with my grandmother, named after my cousin, Audrey Benac. In the film, Deragh, as Audrey, lives in my cousin Grace’s apartment, and throughout, she is wearing my clothing or some of my grandfather’s clothing. So, to make Never Eat Alone, Deragh got to know my family well, and she could look at my traits and my other family members’ traits and carry them forward in her own creative decisions within her own process. Over the course of the evolution of the character from Never Eat Alone to Veslemøy’s Song to MS Slavic 7, I feel now more than ever that Audrey is a co-synthesis of mine and Deragh’s inputs. That’s a major reason why Deragh became a co-director on the project.

Originally, I was the sole director of MS Slavic 7. Deragh had pitched me the structure, and we were going to be co-writers, but for the first time in our collaborative relationship, I truly felt that I couldn’t come up with all of the answers. They weren’t all coming from me, and that was a positive thing. I just didn’t know, and it was a mystery, and ultimately, I realized Deragh’s voice was the other half of the equation. I think that speaks greatly to her investment in the film and in her work as an actor. She throws herself in and deeply invests herself in the world that the filmmakers are trying to create. She gives herself reading lists and watches a lot of cinema, and she is very involved in the wardrobe. With this film, I remember her and Mariusz Sibiga, the actor who plays the translator, sitting down in the restaurant, planning out their dialog scene and how that was going to go because that scene was largely improvised. I found myself feeling so touched and moved by how well-studied she was in regards to the letters, my great-grandmother’s work, my own thoughts, and Józef Wittlin’s work. I feel lucky to work with a collaborator who cares as much about my family as I do.

Q: In previous conversations, you touched on how funny and strange it was to explore a little of Audrey’s sexuality and overall her intimacy with others. Could you expand on that tension? Intimacy can be more difficult to convey for the female roman à clef protagonist as compared to a male one. To me, creators like Kerouac and Bukowski struggle with intimacy because when they pursue it, their own definitions don’t always align with others’. Audrey appears to struggle with intimacy because it may not be her priority right now, but it is something she wants and needs.

A: I love that. I was having a conversation recently with a friend about being self-partnered. It was something Emma Watson said recently because someone had asked her, “Are you dating someone? Are you single?” And she just replied, “I’m self-partnered,” which I think is a beautiful thing because even though you’re single, that doesn’t mean you’re available. You might not want to be partnered with someone. You might just be happy being by yourself.

It’s funny. I’ve been told that the scene with Audrey and the translator in bed is scandalous because it looks like Audrey is using the translator to get what she wants from the letters. When the translator kisses her on the shoulder, and she has no reaction to it, people misinterpret Audrey to be a really cold person. It’s an interpretation that I completely disagree with because Audrey is a thinking, feeling, sensitive being, and the whole film is about how she has a hard time articulating and expressing herself. She’s finding her voice and trying to ask for what she wants and say what she wants. Just because a person isn’t able to express themselves clearly doesn’t mean that they’re not feeling things deeply.

What that scene actually was for us was an opportunity where we could explore the overlap of two things that Audrey wants: she wants a recital of these letters, and she wants to sleep with this man. She wanted him to read the letters aloud, and he does. And, they do sleep together, but ultimately, she doesn’t want their relationship to go any further. Plus, MS Slavic 7 is not a film where this person is having a hard time completing her thoughts, and her thoughts are completed by a male counterpart. This is a film about a person who has the desire to complete her own thoughts and to self-actualize on her own terms. She’s not looking to rely on a man to fill that void. She wants to continue the search.

And for me, on-screen intimacy was a big thing missing in my work. I’m a very private person in that regard, and the scene in bed was Deragh’s idea. It was enlightening for me as a filmmaker, artist, and person to confront how uncomfortable I felt and to realize I was moving into new territory as an artist to talk about this element of myself, this element of Audrey, and this element that Deragh wanted to talk about. It was a challenge for me to film the scene, and I’ve been quite surprised by people’s reactions to it.

Q: Self-discovery as an intellectual or artist through family history can be simultaneously uplifting and deflating, depending on the discoveries made and the reactions that come from them. Do you foresee a moment when Audrey will walk away from creative works and research that use material or inspiration from her family history?

A: Funny that you should ask—I have a new film coming out with Audrey called Point and Line to Plane. It’s about a friend of mine who passed away very suddenly last year. He was my first producer and collaborator, and I wanted to find a way to honor him. I started writing a letter to my grandmother, and this eventually evolved into a film about trying to find him or traces of him through artwork made by Wassily Kandinsky because he was an artist whom we mutually admired. For the first time, one of my films is much less concerned with family history or with archives, and instead it deals with regret, mourning, and grieving. Point and Line to Plane also explores Freud’s theory of magical thinking, which Joan Didion appropriated in the book, The Year of Magical Thinking, which is about looking for signs, coincidences, and messages from a person when they pass away because of your inability to cope or navigate that person’s loss. So, this new film is about my attempt to communicate with this friend of mine after his sudden passing.

Q: That’s beautiful. I love The Year of Magical Thinking. I found Joan Didion’s approach to the passing of her husband to be a compelling way to look at grief.

A: I found myself very much relating to her words and her perspective in a way that was extraordinarily validating. I thought, “Yes, I feel all of these things so strongly!” Reading that book propelled me to make the film. I didn’t know about the phenomenon of magical thinking, nor did I possess the language to investigate it or to describe it, but when I read that book, I realized, “Oh, this is the virus that I’m sick with right now,” and it gave me an entire spectrum and palate to start expressing myself.

Q: Didion has a gift for examining realities. Play It as It Lays says so much about Los Angeles. The Year of Magical Thinking says so much about love, grief, and attempts to rationalize both.

A: Contrary to what you may believe about me after seeing MS Slavic 7, I don’t read as much as Deragh does. Audrey’s literary references in the film all come from Deragh. The Year of Magical Thinking is the first Joan Didion book that I have ever read, but I hope to continue to read more.

Q: I know getting time to read between living, working, and seeing cinema is hard. I think it’s harder now than it’s ever been.

A: It’s such a challenge. Deragh said to me recently that books are like friends—you just have to nurture the relationship, so that’s something that I’m working on right now.

Interview conducted by Lily

Feature photo: Still from MS Slavic 7

 

Director Ivana Mladenović

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Originally published on Ink 19 on November 19th, 2019

One of the most compelling films that we have seen so far at this year’s AFI Fest is Ivana the Terrible (Ivana cea Groaznica), the second feature by acclaimed Serbian filmmaker Ivana Mladenović, whose debut directorial effort, Soldiers. Story from Ferentari, not only garnered major prizes at the 2018 Trieste Film Festival and San Sebastián International Film Festival, but also in its production and release, led to the formation of significant personal experiences for the director which were woven into her new film. Co-written by her Soldiers. Story from Ferentari collaborator, Adrian Schiop, Ivana the Terrible stars Ivana and her real life family, former lovers, and friends (included amongst them is Romanian-Canadian singer-songwriter, Anca Pop, who tragically passed in 2018 in a car accident) in a narrative that draws from Ivana’s sojourn back to her hometown of Kladovo for a much needed, but sometimes humorously disturbed, period of recuperation following the tumultuous events that accompanied the release of her debut film. Centered on the Romanian-Serbian friendship festival in Kladovo, Ivana the Terrible emerges as personal study of the historical and contemporary relationship between the two nations and the alienating experiences of leaving and returning to one’s family and home. We spoke in depth with director Mladenović shortly before the premiere of Ivana the Terrible at this year’s AFI Fest about her inspirations for the film, her second screenplay collaboration with Adrian Schiop, her experimental process in rehearsing her own family and friends for their roles, and her thoughts on the late Anca Pop.

Q: We’re at an exciting time in cinema where many narrative films are moving toward hybrid documentaries that vacillate between reality and fiction such as Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark and Quý Minh Trương’s The Tree House, and your film certainly exemplifies this approach. What becomes interesting in this paradigm is the idea that sometimes fiction can be truer to the feelings in reality than the real moment itself. As you were writing and filming Ivana the Terrible, how did your memories of real moments of your difficult summer of 2017 impact the creation of a scene? Did the emotional impact of a memory lead you to create more of a true re-enactment or more of a fictionalization of the memory?

A: My first film, Soldiers. Story from Ferentari, is based on the autobiographical book written by Adrian Schiop. Adrian plays himself in the film, together with another brilliant non-actor. It is the story of an anthropologist who moves to the ghetto to write his PhD thesis on manele (contemporary Roma music) and starts an affair with a Roma ex-convict. But, not all of the people performing in the film act as themselves or have lived the moments written in the book and the script. Here, in Ivana the Terrible, I try to expand on this concept. I invited all of the people involved in my summer 2017, my friends, my family, my ex-boyfriends, to relive the emotions that happened then, but this time in front of the camera.

As Andrei, one of the characters, says in a scene in the film: “Whenever you want to talk about your family, you have to realize that you are talking about your family from your point of view, as you perceive it, not as it actually is”—so, this whole story has passed through my filter. And, my point of view on what happened, once written, began to change. We started rehearsing, and by talking, we realized that our memories don’t match. Eventually, we decided that it’s the emotion that matters, and although the characters at first didn’t quite reach the level of emotion that I considered to be genuine, I eventually managed to evoke and capture it while shooting.

Q: We understand that Ivana the Terrible was conceived to be your personal therapeutic method to understanding that summer. As you sought to study yourself in the film, did you also seek to create a personal anthropological study of your hometown of Kladovo?

A: How you feel about your life somehow almost always has to do with your family and the place where you were born and grew up. Even though some memories seem to be hard, now, I find them to be funny and maybe even childish. Just like Soldiers, this film also doesn’t fully reflect reality. I decided to write with Adrian Schiop again for Ivana the Terrible because I enjoy working with him. He is more cynical than I am, and the way he relates to reality is much more interesting and funny. I didn’t want to make a serious movie. The process was strange because at one point, while rewriting the things that happened, they started to get further away from reality, and even if it’s a personal experience, you no longer feel it’s about you. By reliving experiences several times (reality, writing, rehearsals, and shootings), things get easier and make you evolve or change. But in the end, you realize who you were. From this perspective, I find what I did to my character quite funny. The hardest part of it all was getting my family and friends involved in this experiment.

Q: As you mention, this is the second time you’ve worked with anthropologist and writer Adrian Schiop. How do you feel his approach to field studies and, overall, to understanding humans informed your filmmaking process?

Adrian focused his PhD thesis on manele music, but the thesis concentrated on people who lived in the community, not the music itself. In writing about his experiences in Soldiers, he presents the story of a forty year-old anthropologist whose girlfriend recently left him and who decides to move to a ghetto (Ferentari) to conduct research for his PhD thesis on manele music. While there, he meets Alberto, a poor ex-convict who promises to introduce him to Roma musicians, and very quickly, they begin an unpredictable relationship. In transforming Adrian’s book into a film, I never wanted to make an ethnographic study of Ferentari, but through the relationship between Alberto and Adrian’s character, we talk about societal issues that arise in the book and film: we address homosexuality, poverty, marginal communities. And, all of these are always seen through my characters’ points of view.

Of course there is a temptation to concentrate on the exotic parts of a community, because gazes can be diverted. And there in Ferentari, you just want to film everything you see. I felt the same way when making Ivana the Terrible. I placed the story in the middle of the folk festival dedicated to the Serbian-Romanian friendship, and instead of making an ethnographic study, I chose to talk about the Serbian-Romanian relationship through Ivana’s relationship with her small-town community and new friends from Romania who are visiting.

Q: Our deepest sympathies to you on the passing of your friend Anca Pop, who is wonderful in the film. Could you discuss your process of creating her character in the film, given that Anca in real life straddled not only multiple cultures and nationalities but also sexualities? How much of her reality did you want to infuse into her fictionalized form?

A: Besides being an amazingly talented musician, she was also very, very generous in her energy and was inspiring to other people. When I was writing her character, I wanted to make someone Ivana’s character is not only jealous of, but also amazed by. Ivana tries to hide the relationship with the younger boy, and at the same time, she presents herself to her family and her community as a progressive person, without any confidence issues—which is why I have put her in all these moments of conflict in the film. She would very much like to be open like Anca, but it’s harder to take responsibility for that. It’s much easier for her to criticize when she is not accepted.

Q: Throughout Ivana the Terrible, there is this precarious balance between progression toward the future and adherence to old traditions that may be mired by past conflicts between Serbians and Romanians. Was then your desire to book Anca and Andrei’s characters’ experimental folk duo for the friendship festival based on a real effort that you undertook, or was it a manifestation of your frustration about the tendency of your community to dwell in the past?

A: The Romanian-Serbian friendship festival has already been happening for some years in my hometown in Serbia. History reveals a good relationship of cooperation between the two countries. During Ceauşescu, they would come to us for food and supplies, and during the 2000s, we would go to them, but there are some small jealousies between the two cities on the border, and there are jokes about each other depending on the moment in history. We thought crossing from one country to another, and how Ivana changes in relation to the two, is important in the film.

The problem is, or let’s say the humor is, that Ivana is so desperate to teach her small community what she learned abroad, yet she is not ready to accept those things herself. As some nice people said: This is a film which is a portrayal of a generation that seems to be stuck in eternal puberty. Maybe they’re too smart to continue the lives of their parents, but they’re too weak to build the new world.

One thing the two countries have in common is that both citizens want to emigrate. In Ivana’s case, she is kind of stuck in between. Like most of the people who leave their home country, Ivana, too, has to ask herself if she made the right decision.

Q: As a follow up to the previous question, was Anca’s disappearance before the scheduled festival performance indicative of yours or her frustration, or was it simply a moment that actually happened?

A: Anca’s not showing up to the performance is not inspired by reality. While talking about reality and fiction intertwined, that summer, I was reading a lot of Marguerite Duras, and in one of her novels, Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night, the character was drinking a lot, and while reading it, I was thinking that if I ever make that film, Anca should play that character. Also, the novel featured a similar trio of characters with two women and one guy. Maybe that inspired me to make those scenes of maximum frustrations for Ivana’s character not happen in my life, but happen in Anca’s life in other moments.

Q: This final question emerged during the scene when you, Andrei, and Anca meet with the mayor and the festival committee, and Anca goes on about bringing her movement of clitoris bronzing to Serbia. This immediately made us think about the gilded penis in Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie, which he made after fleeing Belgrade and settling in Canada, as Anca’s family did. In that scene, it is as though Anca has taken Makavejev’s creation back to his homeland, but has spun it towards her more modern feminist perspective. Was that a conscious allusion to Makavejev? If this is the case, is the primary underlying current of Ivana the Terrible about the wisdom of travel and creation abroad and how that can be translated when one returns home?

A: He inspired me a lot, and Anca inspired me as well in forming that scene, since she was organizing a real clitoris festival in Romania. Those were some serious topics, but I believe if we discuss them through humor, we might succeed in bringing people closer to the issues. She is my favorite character in the film—the feminist Anca organizing a clitoris festival in Romania and trying to talk about it with Serbian women. I think that little dialogue says a lot about women’s societal positions in both countries.

Interview conducted by Generoso and Lily